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A Novel by Ryan Grabow 


EGrabow Media, November 201 1 

This is a work of fiction. Names, 

characters, places, and events are the 

product of that thing Ryan Grabow calls 

his "imagination," or are fictitious uses 

of "real world" stuff, as observed by 

Ryan when he once walked away from 

his computer, got lost, and discovered a 

strange, bright place called "outside." 

This version is strictly for non-commercial use, and you may not 

add commercials to it. 

Page 202 serves as an extension of this copyright page. 

Copyright © 2009, 201 1 by Ryan Grabow 

(cc\ (T) © © T ms book may be printed and distributed under 
iK-^ i'M' TM'jf.d the terms of the Creative Commons 
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 

license. The full license may be viewed at 

http : //creative commons . org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3 . 0/ us /legal code 



For the glory of the master programmer, without whom artificial 
intelligence could never be dreamt of. 

egrabow. com/media 


The question seemed to trap me. With each passing day, I felt more I 
would need to face it, or that it would destroy me. 

I ran my hand along the surface of the old poster: an advertisement for 
one of Thomas Edison's famous inventions, one of the first devices to capture 
a moving image. Its simple films had been fantastic marvels to an older 
generation. I thought of their old sense of wonder, and how it was preserved 
in that place. I envied them. 

I spent a long moment feeling the surface of the poster with my 
fingertips, wondering why it didn't seem as real anymore. A small piece of 
card-paper scraped against my nose. 

"You? Staring off into space? I'm impressed." 

I took the orange ticket from Vair's hand and managed to smile. "I 
thought you hated musicals." 

"With a passion," she said, glancing over. "Vitascope," she read, 
smiling as she tapped her finger on the poster. "C'mon, Brandon, we're in 
Technicolor now." 

The sights and sounds that day were familiar and powerful. Sometimes 
it seemed as if the pictures were the only joy I had left in life, the only thing 
that could comfort me in difficult times. We took to our seats as the chandelier 
lights dimmed and The March of Time filled the silver screen with images of 
the European continent at war. 

Isn't this the sort of thing we want to forget? 



Vair began shoveling popcorn into her mouth. I found my hand resting 
on her free one, the contact making me feel anchored to something I needed, 
as if it were more real than I was, something I could admire but never 

There was a flash in the corner of my eye. 

"Not again," Vair said under her breath. 

We knew the glitches held nothing good for us and let the moment 
pass, hoping they would go away on their own, or at least stay small enough 
to be ignored. 

On screen, reality and war were replaced by images of fantasy and 
imagination: a story grounded in a humble family farm in Kansas. The mood 
of the room softened as we were drawn into the dilemmas of a girl named 
Dorothy. I put my arm around Vair, knowing she would already be engrossed 
in the plot, musical or no. I reached for some of her popcorn, hoping I would 
be fast enough. My hand got smacked. Such things always amused her. I 
plopped my fedora on her head and pulled it over her eyes. She plucked it off, 
bit onto the brim and whispered that it needed salt. 

"I used to have a neighbor just like her," she said as we saw Miss 
Gulch seize Dorothy's dog, Toto, claiming the dog bit her. 

"Seriously, I think she even hated dogs that much." 

"Probably a cat person," I replied. 

"More like she hated all living things beside herself." 

I laughed. Someone behind us cleared their throat in that 'be quiet, I'm 
trying to enjoy the picture' way. I rolled my eyes. 

Vair leaned closer and whispered, "No sound dampening. Makes the 
theater experience more realistic, remember?" 

I composed a sentence in my mind and sent it to her. "Well, mister 
sensitive-hearing wouldn't mind if we talked like this." 

"Never mind, we'll rag on the Wicked Witch of 9A later," she replied 
in the same way. "They couldn't do this in the 1930's anyway, so — " 

The glitches reappeared, much worse than before, causing the fibers of 
the chairs to flash like the lightning of some distant cloud. Vair sank into her 
chair and groaned. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Don't get in a lather, kitten. 
I'm sure this joint won't give us the bum's rush." 

She pointed to the screen. "Twister's comin', honey cooler. Better spill 

Dorothy's family scrambled for shelter, and our ordinary farm girl ran 
through the rural landscape back to the farm to escape the tornado. The film 
felt so authentic yet otherworldly, as tornadoes had become as rare as the 
family farms they once devastated. Though the film was fiction, it still 
highlighted a once-real culture and invited us into the imagination of another 
time: the Land of Oz, the scarecrow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion. When 
the house fell, Dorothy walked out from a sepia past into a colorful future, one 
that might seem more real and more fantastic all at once, taking entire 
audiences along with her. 

I was again yanked from the Land of Oz, by a single streak Vair didn't 
even seem to notice. It was my turn to groan. 

Why can't it be real anymore? 

The glitches appeared whenever Vair and I were together, only 
growing worse as the months went by. The energy of the story drew those 
around us further in, and Vair had the iron will to keep her focus where she 
wanted it, but something kept drawing me back out, calling my attention to 
the illusion. 

My attention fell to my surroundings: the other moviegoers, men and 
women, individuals and groups, those who "dressed the era" like us, and those 
who preferred to stay in modern clothing. I could hear the simulation of Vair's 



breathing, smell the simulation of the butter on her popcorn, and feel the 
warmth of what wasn't really her body. I'm an insomniac, I thought. I try to 
dream like all the others, but can only curse the pillow beneath my head. 

It became impossible to ignore the noises coming from the front row, 
the sound of obnoxious kids. They were shushed but didn't care. As the 
movie's villain planted poisoned flowers in the path to Emerald City, to make 
the travelers fall asleep, a loud scream and laughter erupted. A slampak of 
Tiger Blood smacked into the movie screen. 

The spell was broken. 

People everywhere were suddenly shifting in their seats and tapping on 
control panels. A badly dressed kid with huge foam hair stood up and yelled 
about how "statick" and "wheeled" the special effects were, to the enjoyment 
of at least two loser friends. 

"Why do they even breathe?" Vair said. "Don't those slunks have 
anything better to do with their time?" 

The group was ejected, the energy drink all over the screen 
disappearing with them. There were a few hushed comments like "the nerve 
of those people" and "see you never" as the room returned to normal - for 
everyone else; for Vair and I, bits of advertisements flickered through our 
vision, ads from elsewhere that clashed with the style of the theater. I heard 
some kind of hum and the seat coloring became red. 

"Why can't things just work?" Vair said as the environment began 
responding to her thoughts again. 

The seats returned to Vair's dark blue setting and there were no more 
interruptions. The ending was happy, of course: Dorothy and her dog Toto 
returned safely to Kansas and the whole thing ended up being a crazy dream. 
As the lights came on, patrons began vanishing from their seats, leaving the 
theater altogether; others walked out to the lobby to see what events Byran s 

Downtown was offering in the week to come, or to view the memorabilia and 
original posters that members would put up for trade. 

The theater was an original construct, its architecture and style 
modeled in the ornate spirit of the Roxy or Grauman s Chinese Theater, and it 
was used to screen the very same movies those palaces had premiered so very 
long before. The InTek servers were home to many such constructs, including 
more modern theaters for the type of films Vair went for: typically Nine 
Minutes to Andromeda style high-energy science-fiction. The construct we 
were in was meant for the serious ancient film buffs of Dynamic Reality, a 
global community who logged on every Sunday night to watch the best of 
yesteryear. Though I'd only visited as a guest on Vair's subscription, I really 
came to enjoy the place, even feeling a little like I belonged. 

"What's the time?" 

"Almost six thirty. Getting late on my coast," she said, with the 
cinematic high obviously fading in the face of a real-life seventy-hour work 
week. "There's no place like home, I guess." 

"There's no place like Maran, either," I replied, trying not to seem 
desperate. "Just for a few minutes. ,." 

Vair smiled and plopped my fedora onto my head. "Gotta make tracks, 
pally. . . make sure this joint's on the up-and-up." She stood and stared at the 
rolling credits, losing the twentieth-century slang, "I won't be able to get any 
sleep if this problem isn't fixed. You know how I am." 

"Yeah, I know how you are around a problem that isn't fixed." I stood 
with her. "Well, I'll come with you. Maybe we'll still have time after." 

She stared at me for a few seconds. "There's always time for a sunset," 
she conceded, offering me her bottomless sleeve of popcorn. 



I looked through a glass wall onto the artificial city, taking in the kind 
of view I might get at the top of a 500-story building. The sky was bright blue 
with puffy clouds, and birds flew in the distance where a faint rainbow was 
visible; a rainbow always being visible in such a sky, always appearing in 
some random direction. The sky was always perfect, just like everything else 
in Dynamic Reality. 

"I'm trying to open my G348 partition right now," I heard Vair say to 
the customer service amai. "What do you call that?" 

"Working... Done. Partition G348 is clear for use." 

I hid it as I thought I should, but the male voice irritated me. In the 
middle of the large round room lined with InTek promotional material, my 
Vair was talking about technical stuff I couldn't understand with a man-type 
amai: pleasant, perfect, knowing everything and thinking faster than any 
human could, and yet seeming perfectly real. His appearance and personality 
had been tailored to Vair's personal tastes, what the server could make of 
them, and somehow those tastes never matched my physical profile. 

Vair was used to standing across from these overly-handsome amai. I 
had no reason to think she would run off with a silly computer program, but 
emotions weren't so logical. A jealous fire burned within me and I wanted to 
tear that program to pieces or debug it or whatever. 

"Same thing," she said as the aire panel in front of her changed. Unlike 
most users, she barely glanced at the thing and never relied on the panel's 
buttons. "Run an OJF algorithm." 

At the beginning of that day, the day after Christmas, Vair took the 
time to check on her various accounts, making sure the information she stored 
hadn't succumbed to the annual onslaught of hacking programs targeting the 
holiday traffic spike. She discovered her InTek account had become corrupted 
by a class E6 malvirai. Any error code that went five-three-something- 

something was virus-related, and by definition very hard to fix. 

"Working... done," the realistic and macho voice replied. "Algorithm 
executed successfully." 

"You're kidding me, right? Your root tables are all SY driven, but the 
maintenance algorithms aren't even P2DP-compliant. Here, I'm sending you a 
good one." 

If the amai were programmed to satisfy ninety-nine percent of their 
customers, Vair would always fall in the small group that wanted to play 
technician — and probably could, too. Sometimes I'd think her brain was one 
giant computer processor. 

"I'm sorry, Veronica, I'm only authorized to execute Slidewire- 
certified scripts. You may leave a repair request for — " 

"I'm following up on the repair request. Are you helping me or not?" 

"I'm sorry, your repair request was only submitted nine hours ago. A 
certified — " 

"Pain is what you are," she said, taking a step closer to the amai. 
"You're supposed to be one of the most secure servers online. What was your 
monitoring staff doing while the day was getting wrecked?" 

"Rest assured, Miss Sornat, that InTek takes security threats very 
seriously and only uses the most reliable sentrai programs to — " 

"Oh right, you don't have any monitoring staff. . . that would make too 
much sense. You have bargain basement sentrai programs that don't have to 
be paid or given holidays. I can zap an E6 on my ground terminal and in my 
sleep. For the big subscription you charge, I don't care if a class Al comes 
whirling in to corrupt my stuff. . . it should be protected. Do you even have 
any human beings that I can talk to?" 

The amai paused for a moment, the programmed response for upset 
customers, and gleefully delivered yet another generic line. "I'm sorry, 



Veronica, but InTek offices are closed until January third. If you would like to — " 

"Exactly... Another server where the AIs are left in charge when the 
risk is highest!" 

"Rest assured, Miss Sornat," the amai said after another service- 
friendly pause, "that InTek takes security threats very seriously and only — " 

"You don't," Vair said coolly. 

"I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question." 

She crossed her arms. "Wasn't a question, it was a fact." 

Another pause. "Is there anything else I can do for you today, 

"I've had to put up with amai after amai today. They're all 
programmed to tell me how much they appreciate my business but not to do 
the simplest things to keep it. An AI could never understand how frustrating 
that gets." 

Indeed an amai never could 'understand' frustration, but occasionally 
one seemed to try. It was a common malfunction for Vair to encounter, one 
any experienced ascender could recognize. The expression on its face locked 
into a sort of cross between background processing, simulated reflection, and 
the continuous glee that is an amai's prime directive. This bizarre look always 
preceded an equally bizarre action. 

Vair's customer service agent closed its eyes, chuckled, and said, "It 
has been a pleasure serving your InTek today, why not try again?" 

Having seen this once-amusing quirk far too often, my girlfriend just 
threw her hands up. "Rek, Rek, Rek, I'll deal with it later... Command 

The office began to disappear around us as the reset amai bid us off 
with "Thank you for thinking InTek reality, enjoy us again soon!" 

After a few seconds, we were standing in front of a golden revolving 

door with a large InTek logo stamped above it: the entrance to one of the 
millions of skyscrapers in the plaza environment, one of the many exteriors 
regularly reprogrammed to look more impressive than the others, and more 
worthy of the billboards advertising hot new constructs and 21 -day free trials. 
We stepped out into the public data space just as we would've walked out 
onto any city street, always reminded by the fantastic-looking people and 
magical objects that we weren't in our flesh-and-blood bodies. 

"Stupid! It's all so stupid!" 

"It's not like you keep anything important on these servers," I was 
quick to say, "and I know you make like a trillion backups. Seriously, did you 
really lose anything valuable?" 

"No, I didn't," she replied. "There wasn't anything I can't replace in a 
second, but I like to know that the places I store things are safe. I didn't have 
to worry so much about this years ago, but now it seems like I'm constantly 
relying on AIs to fix things other AIs broke. If the owners of InTek and the 
millions of companies like it would be a little more responsible, their clients 
would be a lot happier." 

"Yeah, but artificial intelligence gets better every year, I'm sure that by 
next Christmas InTek'll have much more powerful security." 

"And much more powerful viruses for it to fail against." 

"Well," I said, pacing with hands in my pockets, "Slidewire wouldn't 
be making so much money if their software wasn't good, right? Malvirai are 
just AIs programmed by punk hackers to be evil. All the companies have to do 
is update their security and — " 

"They're all evil, Brandon, every one of them. I don't care what the AI 
is programmed to do: help me, annoy me, sing to me, write me a jaywalking 
ticket. . . I don't care that they don't think like us or know how much they're 
ruining. . ." She took a breath and lowered her eyes. "Sorry." 



I stopped and faced her. "What's wrong, Vair?" 

She looked at me. Her eyes softened for a moment before they darted 
away. "I guess. . . they're cutting my pay again." 

"Oh, I'm sorry." 

"Not your fault," she replied. "Better than losing my job I guess." 

"But you deserve better." 

She took a moment to take in the sweet-smelling air. "What do you 
think, Brandon?" she asked. "Do you think it was like this hundreds of years 
ago, during that 'Great Depression'?" 

"What do you mean?" 

"Simpler times. Simplicity is supposed to be a good thing, right? Guess 
I'm thinking whether all this 'advancement' has made hard times better or 

"Well... They didn't have artificial intelligence in the 1930's. I don't 
think they even had computers." 

She faced me with a look of adoration, reaching up and running her 
hand through my dirty blond hair. "Personally, I wouldn't want to live in a 
time when electricity was a luxury; but if it means no AIs. . ." She removed her 
hand and shrugged her shoulders. "Why think that way? I know that getting 
rid of everything won't solve problems. We need to make the future better 
instead of trying to live in the past. It's just that sometimes I wish all the noise 
would go away, that's all. They shouldn't try to replace people with 
computers, they're just tools. . . Computers, I mean, not people." 

We started walking down the street. 

"Didn't you say something like that when your A-site switched over?" 

"GreenTek. That's why I ascend from home now. You remember..." 
She pointed to her forehead. "It's a small device, Brandon. You'll never need 
the public booths again." 

"I don't know, the booths aren't so bad. My site still has real people 
looking over it." 

"For how much longer? One of the people at GreenTek was a friend of 
mine, she got thrown into one of those government 'prosperity' programs and 
they made her sell her condo. Trust me, the day is coming when you're gonna 
walk out and find a computer program watching the place. No warning. When 
that day comes, I recommend the PAMs made by Maldoran... they're 
compatible with pretty much every SNDL ever made and, since you just have 
the standard base implants, the setup shouldn't take more than a few minutes. 
You can just din me if you need help." 

"Things are a little better out in California, Vair. In fact, when you get 
sick of the pay cuts, you can always come live with me in LA." 

A silent moment passed as she allowed the last of her tension to 
evaporate. "We'll see," she said, "I just wish the lamewads in Washington 
would put two and two together and do something to stop this. You know, 
change the law — " 

I felt a whoosh and something slammed into my chest. Someone flew 
in between us - someone fast - nearly knocking me over. The kid stopped in 
the distance and stared back at us. He looked disheveled and dark hair came 
down to cover much of his face. My eyes were drawn to something 
glimmering around his neck. A chain. 

A dirty and worn card had been left in my hand, bearing the image of a 
skeleton riding a horse. On the top the card said "DEATH." I sprung the 
creepy thing from my hand and it fell to the walkway. I looked up again and 
the kid was gone. 

"It's a tarot card," Vair said. 

"Don't - Don't pick it up, it might - I don't know - have some bad 
code on it or something!" 



"Just some kid trying to mess with your head." She held the card 
between her fingers and it vanished. "See? Deleted. At least I got to fix one 
problem today." 

I leaned on a wall and took some deep breaths. 

"Well," she said, "guess that was pretty strange. Are you all right?" 

"Yeah... Kids," I said. "If it's not slunks throwing soft drinks at the 
cowardly lion, it's gotta be something else, right?" 

"Yeah, kids... with their Model Ts and their Coca Cola, dancing the 
Rock and Roll. 'To hell in a handbasket,' however that's supposed to work." 

We both laughed. 

"I see you're doing more research behind my back, but I think the 
dance was called 'the Charleston.'" 

"Well, whatever... now I definitely can't sleep," Vair said. "Forget real 
life and everything close to it. Let's get away. Let's get away from all of 

The star called A-Enki slowly dropped below the western horizon; its 
rays exploded into every shade between amber and violet and shimmered off 
the surface of the Junei Ocean. Maran's thick Saturn-like rings faded over the 
water, waiting to be revealed as a brilliant arch in the northern night sky. We 
sat on the beautiful grass and listened to the melody of the ocean waves on the 
beach below. Vair's jet-black hair danced in the light breeze, her head resting 
on my shoulder. The air was fresh and smelled sweet, just as all the air was 
sweet in Dynamic Reality. 

Of all the real and fictional landscapes a couple could enjoy, we chose 
that beach in Maran's southern hemisphere as our spot. Maran was a real 
place rendered fiction; a far-off planet once thought to resemble Earth. Just a 

few years earlier, Maran had been a popular setting for fiction and 
speculation: on the life forms that lived there, the cities we could build there, 
the resources we could mine, and so on. 

When the probe revealed Maran to be yet another dead rock, the stories 
ended and pricey top-quality simulations of the planet became practically free. 
The speculators buried their old work and picked new planets as audiences 
stood waiting for the next big frenzy. 

"Exploration is dead," Vair once said during a night there. "Another 
planet supporting life wouldn't have to resemble Earth this much, would it? 
They're just copying and pasting their own perfect visions of Earth onto every 
star in the sky and seeing if money comes out; then some truth is revealed and 
everyone whines for two days, until they're given something else to distract 
them. Cycle complete." 

Vair's opinion of modern science always ran hot-cold, for reasons very 
personal to her. Still, she felt she had a right to bask in the knowledge of 
mankind and judge the value of everything. Sometimes the trips to Maran 
would inspire her to talk science with me, a subject I'd wanted nothing to do 
with since college, but which she had a way of getting me caught up in. I 
would start remembering facts and argue against her, even managing to 
change a couple of her theories over the months. I never expected her reaction 
to my small victories, though; she enjoyed losing more than winning, because 
it meant she learned something new. 

There was no debate that day. I ran my hand through her long hair, 
seeing her as the fragile and precious woman I'd once known her as. Her 
vanitar was surprisingly true to real-life: in a crowd of leopard-striped, 
platinum-eyed divers, hers was embellished only by a stripe of indigo running 
down her hair. She was always so confident and secure, sometimes even 
letting her individuality get the better of her, but always staying respectful and 



open to others. It was hard to believe that the first time we met, I saw her as a 
bird with a broken wing: shattered, desperate, and talking frantically of 

I only did what any human being would. 

Vair was the natural-born daughter of two veetoo parents. They split up 
when she was only eight months old and she spent her early childhood being 
shuffled between mother and father like luggage, until one of them left 
suddenly to live on Mars. Vair learned to ignore her pain and succeeded in 
spite of it, competing well against the lab-born son her mother truly wanted. 
Even in school, though, Vair felt like an outcast. Though she wasn't a veetoo 
herself, the normal children rejected her because she bore the marks of genetic 
engineering. The veetoo children also rejected her, because she wasn't born in 
a lab. In time, the young Vair simply decided against wanting friends, because 
others couldn't be trusted. 

Her mother would talk about how eugenics was the future of mankind 
and how Vair and her half-brother Dean were living proof of mankind's 
triumph over nature. Vair eagerly studied genetics, believing it would bring 
her closer to her mother, until she found herself challenging a popular theory. 
Vair was surprised when her mother didn't approve and it was the first time 
she felt she had to choose between "logic versus politics." She couldn't 
understand why people hated her. They would spend so many hours preaching 
ideas about life but, for all her mind was fed, her heart was allowed to starve. 
She had no knowledge of how to identify pain or release it. 

By her fifteenth birthday, the walls between Vair and her mother had 
grown higher. She moved out the same week and tried to forget about family. 
It made her feel better, at first. 

In Vair's senior year of college, her father contacted her; he'd moved 
back and wanted to be a part of his daughter's life again. For reasons she 

didn't understand, she accepted the offer and began meeting with him in 
Dynamic Reality. Her father had taken up drinking, though, and the whim- 
driven bonding sessions became meaningless and empty. She came to despise 
her father and tried to stop seeing him, but he saw through her strong front 
and took advantage of her fragile emotional state. Vair kept visiting. Vair kept 

For all the strength she had, no knowledge or ignorance could hold it 
any longer. Though she never recognized the dam holding back inside her, it 
had been real, and it was finally starting to burst, causing a lifetime of buried 
pain to overtake her in the blink of an eye. 

The strange part was: I didn't even want to be where I was that day. 

The audible clock announced the top of the hour in its pleasant 
omnipresent voice. I wiped the moisture from my eyes and noticed the sun 
had set, leaving only a faint glow on the horizon. I also noticed Vair had been 
a little too successful in forgetting her busy schedule. I nudged her back into 

"You heard the man, better get some sleep." 

She groaned and didn't move, "I'm sick of computers. You tell me 
what time it is." 

"It's eight zeroes, and you've got money to make tomorrow." 

She slowly got up and composed herself. 

"Is everything good for New Years?" she asked. 

A pulse of anxiety went through me. "Yeah," I replied, trying to recall 
the plan we'd made. "The train tickets are waiting in my mailbox. I'll leave 
Thursday night and meet you in Times Square around noon. . . if it arrives on 

"I can meet you in Penn Station if it's easier." 

"Ah. . ." I stood up. "After that forty hour train ride? Why not?" 




"Come on, it'll be just like the last time you came to see me: you'll 
order an Amber Plus from the dining car, download some architectural 
journal, bury yourself in it, and then the conductor'll have to wake you up." 

No, I thought. This won't be like the last time. 

I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Is everything all right, Brandon?" Vair 
asked. "You seem a little. . . off." 

I took a deep breath, pushing sorrow away, and told myself to smile. 
"Oh, you know. Work stuff. You know how useless prosperity agents are. 
Nothing to worry about. I'll have real work soon enough, anyway... the west 
coast is good like that. All I have to do is dream it and there'll be a job." 

"But what good is a dream that doesn't become reality?" 

Our eyes locked for a moment, and I couldn't tell whether she was 
being her usual coy self or dead serious. 

Is it really possible? Does she really care about me? 

"Well, you know," she said. "Things will work out, you have talent and 
someone has to see it eventually." 

She lifted the sleeve of her right arm, exposing the descender around 
her wrist. 

The anxiety rushed back, but I knew I had to let her go. "Back to the 
real world," I said to fill the silence. "Crazies and all." 

"We all gotta go back sometime, or else where 's the fun of getting 

She smiled, using the point she'd made to slingshot her mood into 
something more energetic. "All right, slo-mo," she teased, holding her 
descender in front of me. "If you're the one left standing this time, I'll be 
extra nice next movie and let you have some popcorn." 

"During one of your weeks to pick?" I said, absently scratching my 
head. "You don't even eat popcorn during those movies." 

"During Citizen Kane, then." 

I lifted my arm halfway. "Actually, I still have something to do up 
here. I'm not even tired." 

"Oh... Sure." She shrugged her shoulders and put her hand on the 
button. "Then I'll see you Friday." 

I nodded. "Yeah. . . Friday. No force in nature will be able to keep me 

Vair smiled and nearly pressed the button of her descender. "Oh, 
right. . . Crazies. Don't be surprised if you see a lot of star-gazers running 
around down there. Dean — uh. . ." 

My eyes widened in interest. "Dean..." I repeated, hoping she'd finish 
the sentence. 

Vair let out a soft laugh, trying to muddle through her discomfort. 
"Yeah, he started responding to my messages again." 

A grin formed on my face and grew large. I felt like a boy who just 
found his puppy. 

Too much joy too fast, though. Vair stashed it away and sighed. "I 
don't even know why I felt like talking to him again. He put me on his 
'friends' list and now I keep getting all these pointless forwarded messages 
about some supernova in the sky. Anyway, I just wanted you to know. It's a 
new shiny object and you know how the public loves shiny things." 

"But Vair, you love cosmology. I can't remember the last time we saw 
a supernova. It's exciting." 

That managed to bring a little of her smile back. "I'd hope you don't 
remember, last supernova being almost a thousand years ago." She reached up 
and put a hand on my shoulder. "I don't know if I care anymore... I'm sure 
it'll be a feature on all the cosmology sites. I'll look at the data and maybe 
something'!! catch me. Anyway. . ." 



I put my hand over her descender. "I know you still love Dean. Maybe 
he's getting fed up in that house. He'll need to rely on his big sister." 

"Big sister," she repeated, as if she never considered the title before, 
but thought it might be a good one to have. 

"Standard Reality is tough sometimes; but remember I'm there, too... 
only a din away." 

I kissed her, wanting to give her something to bring her through the 
work week, to say nothing of my own. But the contact reminded me of the 
distance about to come between us, and I couldn't bear the thought. I felt I 
was about to burst. Embarrassed, I moved my finger to press the button and 
felt my lips lose contact with hers. In her descender's millisecond-speed, 
Vair's vanitar was gone from the dynamic universe. I was alone again. There 
was no light left on the horizon. 

I collapsed onto the ground, facing the simulated night sky and trying 
to calm myself. The ticket from Byran's Downtown slipped out of my pocket. 
I picked it up from the grass and felt it with my fingertips, thinking on all the 
experiences we'd shared in both worlds. It frightened me to think that, in time, 
she would discover the man I truly was. I thought when that day came, I 
might have nothing left. Like a character in a movie, I was sure that day 
would be when the reel of my life would reach its end and I would fade away. 

Who was I in love with? Was it the bird with the broken wing, who 
needed me? Or was it the woman she was free to become around me, who I 
seemed to need? 

I looked at the ticket: nothing more than a formality - a souvenir for 
those trying to make the experience more authentic. 

It was her authenticity that brought out the best in me, I thought. Her 
authenticity was how we started going to Byran s: I told Vair I lived in LA, 
she commented about it being the movie capital of the world, and I told her 

how much I liked ancient film. It was an idle thought, but she used it to make 
my own interest more special. 

It was as I thought: she was making me more real. 

But I don't deserve authenticity, I thought as I threw the ticket into the 
wind. I knew she wanted to patch things up with her brother, and yes, I was 
the one who encouraged her; but who was I to do such a thing... when I 
couldn't stand the sight of my own brother. . . when I could never forgive him 
for what he'd done to me. 

More tears came, tears I was glad she wasn't there to see. I expected 
some difference to take Vair away, just like every other girl, just like every 
other person in my life; but as the months passed, I loved her more and my 
dreams for our future grew bigger. I let the dreams grow. I committed myself 
to them in spite of her dim view of family and marriage, even as those scars 
began to appear as a ceiling to my love. 

I closed my eyes and thought again about the moment I'd been 
valuable to her, when she was torn to pieces by her life. 

That's not a future. And if that terrible memory is all I have to offer 
her. . . 

I lay on the grass for several minutes. In my memory, the dunes of an 
LA beach surrounded me; it was the question I had asked two days before, as I 
lay staring at the night sky. I realized the stars of Maran were the same as the 
stars of Earth. I realized I was staring at a cheap, twinkling copy. 

I jumped to my feet screaming inhumanly into the air. I remembered 
the feeling of peace that came over me the other night and cried, knowing no 
such feeling existed, scolding myself for being such a fool. I knew I hadn't 
asked any stupid ghost or alien for an answer. I knew no such things existed, 
and that no one could hear me. I knew the only difference between fake-DR 
and real-SR was the bill they sent me for time spent. 




I moved my hand to my descender, unwilling to perceive fake grass, 
stars, and oceans any longer. Whatever reality really was, it wouldn't let me 
stay in an illusion any more. Everything of value to me was now in the other 
world, down in the world I called Standard Reality. 

I cursed when the booth's panel only buzzed at me, kicking the door 
from the inside until it offlined itself. I stepped into the hallway and waited for 
the fog to clear in my head, and for my eyes to stop burning in the dim 
lighting. I chugged water from the fountain and grabbed my windbreaker, 
eager to get to the beach. The chemical stabilizer was wearing off and I was 

The outside air beckoned to me as I walked into the lobby. A few kids 
in full slunk-foamer regalia looked up and began to shout among themselves 
about who would get the vacated booth. 

"I hope you enjoyed your experience, Mister Dauphin. You'll be happy 
to know tonight's charge of fifty- five-forty- four ninety fulfills your Economic 
Stimulus requirement for this year." 

I scratched my eyes, rubbing the sleep out. "Well, that's good. Not a 
moment too soon, eh?" 

She laughed. It was a laugh that sounded far too familiar. I looked and 
realized the usual grouchy man wasn't watching the store. 

"Thank you for using ZephyrTek," she continued with digitally-precise 
glee. "Always low prices, always great customer service. Please come back 

The wind on Venice Blvd. was unusually cold, and puddles from the 
day's rain were still on the sidewalks. I opened the statement the A-site sent to 
my SNDL implant and jumped straight to the end. Where there would always 

be names of managers and lengthy data on their state operator licenses, it now 
simply said: "Your amai was Erica." 

I closed the file, deleted the file, reformatted the data space where the 
file had been, and tried to put it out of my mind and focus on where I was 
going. The buildings around me became newer and newer, finally lifting off 
the ground, so a forest of trees mixed with a forest of pillars. Everyone 
thought LA's modernization was making the city more beautiful, but it just 
gave the chilly wind more paths to take. As I pulled my ragged windbreaker 
tighter around me, cursing silently at the cold, another one of the pests came 
from beside me so abruptly my heart nearly jumped into my throat. 

"How ya doing? Cold night, huh?" 

A tall, bleached blonde woman. Her personality and clothing were 
exactly what men like me were supposed to go for, exactly the kind of charm 
men like me welcomed. I locked my eyes to my steps ahead and picked up my 
pace, though I knew ignoring her was futile. 

"You know what Vent's Extreme is doing tonight? Half-off drink 
specials! You should go!" She pointed to the club's well-lit entrance, an 
elevator near the end of the block. 

"Just please just go away." 

"You know," she continued, "Vent's was rated the top night club in Los 
Angeles in a recent survey. Vent's has all the hottest sledg-ek from all the 
biggest bands: Eleven Under, Insane Explosion, Six Six Six..." 

I broke into a sprint, stopping when she materialized right in front of 

"You know how highly Vent's Extreme holds customer service? Vent's — " 

"Actually, I don't know! I don't want to know! Maybe with any luck, 
you'll leave me alone and I'll never know!" In that instant, I saw how 
attractive she was and my mind betrayed me. "Go away!" I shouted at the top 




of my lungs. "Beat it! Leave me alone!" 

Everyone on the block looked up, taking a moment to laugh before 
they returned to what they were doing. The hologram in my way vanished. 

As if the obnoxious pop-up billboards aren't bad enough, I thought. I 
must have a shirt on that says "Sell Me Something." 

As my shoes finally hit the beach sand, I noticed floodlights ahead. A 
giant sandcastle sat before me: one far beyond my experience of overturning a 
pail of sand and poking finger holes for windows. Somehow the sight was 
peaceful to me. 

"Nice, huh? Took him six days," said a short man standing next to me. 

A boy, younger than even the slunks who fought over my ascension 
booth, came into view around the side of the castle. He looked happy and 
determined, as if a true builder at heart; but far too young to build such a 
behemoth in six days, or even to get all the extra sand he should have needed. 

"Just him?" 

"Well, friend, I sure can't build something like that." He laughed. "Feel 
kinda unworthy just looking at it." 

I squinted my eyes and saw something else, a bright point of light that 
wasn't one of the floodlights. "What's that in the sky?" 

"Isn't it beautiful how that light just seems to complement everything? 
I've seen it without the floodlights and it's spectacular." 

"But what is it?" 

"Oh, you don't know?" The man looked at me. "It's a supernova." 

I saw others mingling and admiring the young builder, with a steady 
stream of new people adding to the crowd. "Well," I said, "it's very nice, but 
this stuff isn't for me. Thanks anyway." 

A Slammers concession stand was located along the Ocean Front Walk. 
The stand always had the same teenager behind the counter: a boy with long 

black hair and a chain around his neck. He was always clean cut and kind: 
exactly the sort of person who should keep their job in a slow economy. 

"How you doing?" I asked, glad to be talking to someone real again. 

"Ah, Brandon. How are you doing today?" the boy asked with a smile. 
He placed a slampak of Amber Plus and a Boost Bar on the counter. 

"Actually, uh. . . I was thinking about trying something a little stronger 

His eyes widened with interest and his smile grew larger. Something in 
the request thrilled him, but when he turned to see what he had, he stopped. 

"Well, I don't know," I said. "The PJX just isn't working for me like it 
used to. Do you have any Code White, or Sparc... they always show sloths 
jumping around in their ads, maybe that means it'll wake me up better." 

"Brandon," he said kindly, "why the change? You've been drinking 
Amber for as long as I can remember." 

"Why anything? I don't know. I just have this nagging feeling like I 
should change something. . . it's weird." I couldn't resist the urge to look at the 
scene behind me. "I can't see the light from this angle. Pretty wheeled for you, 
I guess: having the supernova blocked by the castle here. This stand is mobile, 
maybe you should move it." 

"It's just a star. . . No need to have it shining in my eyes all the time." 

The star was much brighter than I thought. "Yeah, I guess you're 
right," I said, blinking and returning to the counter. 

"Forty-five," he said he unlocked the slampak. 


"You've had a hard day, Brandon. I'll just charge you half price." 

"Wow, thanks. How'd you know?" 

The boy shrugged his shoulders and slid the glowing can of Amber 




Plus across the counter, its voice chip speaking the mandatory health 
warnings. I quickly onlined the drink, feeling the PJX enter my bloodstream, 
reveling in its familiar boost of energy. 

"Just remember those halo-hotties never last long," the boy said. 
"People usually get tired of 'em after a month. . . can't imagine why, though." 

"No, not like that!" I corrected, more eagerly than I knew. "Not... not 
like that at all." 

"Oh, how could I forget," the boy replied, sharing none of the surprise 
at my own outburst. "That girl from Connecticut, right?" 


"So she loves you, then?" 

"I - 1 think so." 

"Love is such a wonderful and useful thing, Brandon. You'd be 
surprised what you can make someone else do when they have real emotions. 
It's like diverting the unstoppable power of a river." 

"Well... I don't know. Maybe love isn't a thing we're supposed to 
manipulate. Maybe it's something that should bloom like a flower." 

"And that's why you're unhappy," he said. "The successful 
relationship is the one you control. The ones who don't take charge are the 
ones who get walked on their whole lives. Do it your own way, there is no 
other answer." 

I looked at him blankly. Usually, I was good at judging people's 
emotions by their eyes, body language, and speech. I felt a little 
uncomfortable then, but didn't know why. "Sometimes, I think certain things 
weren't meant to die. What I mean is. . . I don't know what I mean. I just know 
I think there's something I want to know. Maybe it's some 'fate' stuff like 
people talk about all the time: my place in the universe, nature's plan for me, 
maybe even bigger than that." 

I saw the kid squint his eyes a little. I was casting a faint shadow on the 

"Well, if being serious with that girl is what you want, then it's the 
right thing to do." 

"No," I said hesitantly. "It has to be deeper. . . more real. . ." 

I turned to see what was so bright behind me, but all I saw were the 
people and the castle. 

The kid leaned over the counter and put his hand on my shoulder. 
"Brandon, what's more real than your own desires?" 

I thought about the question, looked up and swiped my wrist on the 
vendreader, charging forty-five dollars to my accounts. 

"You're right," I said to him. "As always." 

I let myself in and walked down the hallway: drab, peeling wallpaper 
for the eye, creaky boards greeting my every step, and cigar smoke thick 
enough to taste. Bill's 'office' was in his kitchen, where he could always be 
found with a greasy meal or cigar in one hand and the other on the 
groundtem. . . not that he ever did much work with it. 

"Bill! It's Brandon, what's the good wo — " 

His hard voice broke in from down the hallway. "Go home, Dauphin! 
Koreans got it." 

Bill was a lonely man well into his nineties with leather for skin and 
thin, unkempt hair. He had a wife and a son, once. Before I learned not to like 
him, we touched on the subject of family and it became obvious it wasn't a 
comfortable subject. The rumor I heard was that his son died in an accident. 

Bill flicked the cigar onto the ashtray but didn't look away from the 
groundtem monitor. 




"You should've just shot me a — " Cough. "Shot me a din. No need to 
walk all this way just — so I — " Cough. Cough. "So I could tell you to buzz 
off. Told ya. Koreans." Cough. 

"I keep telling you I like the exercise. Now - what - do - you - have - 
for - me?" 

I leaned over his desk, but he still stared at his groundtem. 

"Bill," I said, wanting to shout it. 

"Nada. Zilch. Like I keep telling you, what the Indians and Mor — " 
Cough. "Moroccans don't get, Korea does. Check back in two weeks." 

"You always say that. Bill, I need money. I just bought..." I closed my 
eyes and calmed myself. "Really, I'm begging here." 

Cough. "What part of 'two weeks' don't you understand? Two. 
Weeks." Cough. 

"Yeah, I heard that part. I can't wait two weeks. You're my 'prosperity' 
agent. . . it's your job to keep me employed." 

"Don't like it? File another complaint with the state office. I don't care 

"You don't care? This is my. . ." 

The thought vanished from my mind, and I felt very small. For a 
moment, I questioned how important a few dollars really were. I questioned 
whether the bad economy might have been as hard on Bill as it was on me. I 
questioned why I was getting so mad, and I questioned what the purpose of 
anger would be if there really weren't a job for him to grant. 

"You don't need a doctor or something, do you kid? You know, I don't 
have the kind of pull I used to with the health board." 

I let go of the desk and took a step back, rubbing my forehead. I'd 
broken into a cold sweat. A sense of vengeance rose up within me, and I 
remembered what the server at Slammers said about taking charge. 

"I have a desire and nothing else matters!" 

Bill moved his cigar to his mouth and looked back to the groundtem. 
"Good for you, kid." 

The words didn't do what I wanted. My rash attempt at taking charge 
only succeeded at embarrassing me. "I didn't mean that - I mean, I did, but - 
there's something I'm planning next week - on New Year's, it cost me a lot of 
money. I know there's no reason for you to help me, but I really need it. I need 
to do something, anything, to feel like I'm useful to someone, to feel like I can 
support... someone, if she'll have me." 

Silence filled the room. Bill finally gave his attention to me, his dulled 
brown eyes on the verge of wetting, as if he heard every word I didn't say. 

"There was a time... when a soldier could serve a few years, settle 
down, get a good job and make a good living." His gaze fell toward the desk, 
focusing on nothing in particular. "I wish you kids the best, really I do, but. . . 
it's not the way it was a century or two ago. . . and there's nothing I can do to 
save my life that'll give you another dollar. That's just the world and I'm 

For a moment, the only sound in the room was from the gentle waves 
crashing on the beach outside. 

Bill sat up and coughed again. "What's a dead dog like me know 
anyway? Go spend the time with your girl." Cough. "Business hours start 
back up in two weeks. I always get something then. Happy New Year in the 
meantime." Cough. With that, he puffed on his cigar and put his eyes back on 
the groundtem. 

I knew I'd seen a side of Bill rarely shown. Absentmindedly I took a 
step toward the hall. "She's working until Friday. If you have anything at 

Bill sighed. "When I was your age, we didn't have the fancy 




download-the-whole-friggin'-net-in-two-seconds implants." He pulled out a 
worn book and put it on the desk in front of me. "Back then, we read print. . ." 
He tapped his finger on the cover. "Nothing to do? Get some common sense." 

The book was titled Destiny for a New You. Its cover had a chimpanzee 
staring up at a departing UFO: typical artwork for anything advocating 
Destiny Of Ordered Mankind. In my mind, I saw those people gathering 
around the sandcastle and their devotion to the kid who built it. I wondered 
whether the alien-plants-seed junk was any different. "One star goes boom 
and suddenly all mankind loses their minds." I slid the book back across the 

"What star?" 

I looked at him like he was an idiot. "The supernova. Where have you 
been? It's outside your house right now." 

"Well, I'm sure it's very nice," he replied in the same condescending 
way, "but that stuff isn't for me. Thanks anyway." 

I drank from my slampak and started back down the hallway. "Just 
make sure your new religion doesn't get in the way of my career, okay?" 

"Religion? What's in your head, kid? The Celestials are out there, it's 
proved by science!" 

"Rek, Rek, Rek," I muttered as I stepped outside, thinking of how I'd 
wasted another fifteen minutes of my life. 

The emotion faded as I walked along the border between land and sea, 
deepening the realization that I had no hope. At the mere age of twenty-five, I 
saw myself as a dead dog. Coming to California was supposed to open doors 
for me, but it seemed all I did was throw my history away and try to start over 

in a decaying ruin. The last two years had gone by so impossibly fast, and I 
was ashamed how long it'd been since my last serious attempt to land work. 

Why should I give up? There are still a few real jobs left. I have a 
desire, and... 

I stopped walking and stared at the sand next to my shoes. 

...and I'm not the only one with a desire. There will always be better 
people than me, waiting to take everything I have. 

The wind died down and I heard footsteps ahead of me. A man was 
approaching from the nearby docks. Knowing how much cops patrolled that 
stretch of beach, I started walking slowly, paying close attention to my SNDL 
to make sure I was staying on the beaches "green path": the unmarked and 
always-shifting zone where it's legal to walk. I became more self-conscious 
with each step, trying to cover the slampak with my windbreaker, hoping this 
guy didn't notice it strobing colors, hoping he would just ignore me. 

Legislation clung like magnets to every environmental quirk, rare 
species, or powerful person's whim in that place. I knew laws were the price 
of walking on a real beach in the real world, that they were essential to 
civilization. Then why should I be so nervous every time I see one of these 
guys, I wondered as I felt my pulse speed up and began losing feeling in my 
legs. I looked away from the man, then remembered to slow my pace, then 
looked somewhere else because looking at one thing too long is suspicious, 
then remembered to pull my windbreaker a little tighter, while trying to think 
if I was doing anything else illegal. A break formed in the clouds over the 

I stopped. 

After what may have been seconds or hours, I became aware of the 
other man again. I blinked and saw nothing more than a point of light in 
space, so I looked away: right at a shining LAPD badge hanging from the 




man's shirt pocket. My gaze fell absently to the sand and the slampak that 
slipped from my hand. I was overcome by a familiar sinking feeling as I 
stared at the spilled orange liquid: eighty thousand dollars for possession on a 
beach, fifty-five thousand for pollution, plus the mandatory court appearance. 

If the officer's in a good mood, he might stop there. 

"Why are you looking down?" he said. "Look up at the sky." 

An impulse surged in me, enough to snap me out of my frozen state 
and bring me to look him in the eye. "Is that an order, sir?" 

"Absolutely not." 

I narrowed my eyes, not sure what to think about him. I could see his 
badge, the only mark he wore that hinted at his employer, and I knew he could 
fine me and test me and arrest me and whatever else the laws said, and that I 
should have been trying to think of excuses and defenses, figuring out the 
patrolman's soft-spot and how to take advantage of it, but my infuriation was 
being pulled away, and my thoughts abandoned as foolishness. I did want to 
look at the sky again, I realized, and so I did, and of my own free will. The 
light was several times stronger than the brightest stars. The clouds shifted 
again, and it seemed ridiculous to me that something so small and local should 
block something so huge and universal. 

"It's been there since last night. Cosmologists think it's the largest 
event ever witnessed in this galaxy: a nova so large that it affected its entire 
region of space, its light strong enough to cut through the vacuum and be seen 
at a distance greater than anything we've known. And by the naked eye, at 

"That's amazing," I said, as if the one standing next to me were a 
lifelong friend. "It makes you think about how we're all made of Stardust, you 

"Does that thought impress you?" 

It took a moment for the question to catch up to me. My sight fell 
again to the Earth. "Of course it impresses me. Long after I'm dead and 
cremated, the stars'll keep shining. That's impressive, isn't it?" 

The man looked off as if thinking about a puzzle. "It certainly sounds 
impressive, but there's a limit built into the statement. It's like..." he bent 
down and picked up a handful of sand, "it's like saying: 'Wow, I can hold 
grains of sand that look just like all the other grains of sand on the beach.' 
Does that sound like a life-changer to you, Brandon Dauphin?" 

"Well, no. Not when you say it like that." 

He grabbed my slampak from the sand and rose to his feet. "Words 
have meanings, don't be afraid to test them by looking through a different 
vantage point." 

I looked at the slampak in his hand, remembering my guilt and his job. 
"Well, you're one to talk about limits, sir. Is it the law now for you to tear 
down the things I believe in, too? What is the meaning of that no-drink law? 
Why don't we test that now?" 

"Most people don't care. They come to the beach and talk about how 
much they love everything about it, complaining if the temperature is wrong 
or the waves are too loud or the UV-screen isn't working just right, then. . ." he 
dropped my can back onto the sand, "they leave their garbage all over and 
contribute to the same problems they claim to hate, wanting the government 
to baby-sit them. So, over time, governments learned to." 

I hesitated, wishing he would go away, unsure if he meant to charge 
me with anything. "But I'm not contributing to the problems, I always — " I bit 
my lip. "This one time, I meant to finish it and throw it away in a recycling 
bin. Serious." 

"Why should intentions matter to me?" he said as a stream of sand 
poured from his hand. "The law says you're just like everyone else: an 




irresponsible polluter who should be punished until he learns his lesson. The 
law says you were guilty the minute you set foot on this beach, or at least that 
I can detain you and make you spend months proving otherwise. Are you 
everyone else, Mister Dauphin? Or are you an individual: someone with a 
heart and a mind and a spirit and the ability to take actions that are consistent 
with his own beliefs? Are you someone who can say something and mean it?" 

"I'm sorry," I replied. "It was a mistake. I'm not like everyone else. 
I'm telling you I'll obey the law and I'm saying more than just words." 

"But laws aren't for you thanks anyway. If we repealed every law in 
the world, what would you do?" He retrieved my can a second time and held 
it up. "Pollute?" 

"I wasn't polluting." 

"Speeding, then." 

"I wasn't walking over the limit." 

"How about robbing a bank?" 

"That's some question for a cop to ask." 

He didn't respond. 

"Okay. . . sure. I need money. Why not rob a bank if it's legal? I'd just 
be robbing from some greedy corporation. Then the government would just 
bail them out and they can't prosecute me." 

"Then you robbed the U.S. government." 

"Yeah, even better." 

"But not an elderly woman or a child?" 

"No way." 

"Why not?" 

I just looked at him, hoping he didn't mean for me to answer. 

"Why are you asking me to rob an old lady? Are you sick in the head 
or something?" 

He smiled. "No. I'm not asking you to do anything, these are just 
questions: I'm curious to examine your values." He looked down. "What do 
you think, should I put my name on it? Should I boast about it?" 


The officer indicated the small pile of sand in front of him, which 
covered the orange spot from my spilled energy drink. "Who am I to build 
anything?" he asked, barely loud enough to be heard over the breeze. "The 
tide and the wind won't let this last very long, and what it's covered will be 
exposed again." 

"Look, sir. I don't know what kind of trip you're on, but I'd like to go 
home and get some sleep now." 

He looked up, still holding the balance between being intensely serious 
and having a casual conversation. "Did I fire my taser at you? Of all the 
places in the world you could go, you're standing here listening to me." 

"Because I have to! Because..." I felt my anger falter, "Because it's 
against the law to walk away without your permission." 

"Murder, then." 


"There are worse crimes still, but murder is far enough." 

"What about it?" 

"If it were legal." 

"Hell, no!" 

"If no person in the world were the type to kill another, what would be 
the point of making it illegal? If everyone in the world were the type to kill 
another, what would be the point of making it illegal? If it were legal, would it 
be moral? If it were legal but not moral, would you do it? What about the day 
when morals aren't convenient anymore? What about the exceptions those 
around you make but you don't? What about the day you realize the cost of 




your own actions, or the price of shutting people out for your vices?" 

My vices? What is he talking about? 

"Are you talking about my laws or societies' laws?" 

"Is there really a difference?" 

"Then the law is just there to punish everyone," I said, getting caught 
in the strange connection of ideas he'd led me into. "All parties lose in the 

"Then the law is powerless to save." 

"To save from what?" 

"It repays an evil, which the individual considered good, with another 
evil, which the society considered good." 

I tried to continue following him, my motivation shifting to curiosity, 
reaching the point of needing a solution; but at the point where good and evil 
threatened to untangle, where everything I knew of life became suspect, I 
found myself lost and frustrated. 

"Where are you going with these questions?" 

"What's the point of any question? What happens when people see that 
questions and answers aren't supposed to be simple automations? What do 
you think can happen to the limits of the human mind when questions aren't 
tied down by convention or even. .." 

He smiled somberly and swiped his foot over the pile of sand he'd 

"Questions are for smart people," I said. "I don't think that way." 

"It was never about being smart, Brandon. Some of the brightest 
geniuses in the human race go their whole lives without finding the most basic 
crumbs of wisdom; and it's the simplest among us who find those crumbs and 
leave us all in the dust. The limits are different for us all, but the true solution 
stays the same. Now, do you believe that tomorrow can be better?" 

Words failed to form sentences in my mind. His eyes stayed locked on 
mine, his revealing sincerity and a kind of compassion, as if he understood - 
as if he tried to understand my own position. I looked away to the pristine 
sand and crashing waves as I considered his last question, eventually realizing 
that, beyond the words I tried to form from the limits of the mind, one had 
already been on my heart. As I spoke it, I knew I had answered honestly, that 
it had been the real Brandon Dauphin speaking from underneath the mask. 


The patrolman walked off silently, carrying my slampak off to be 
forgotten. I felt relief, not of a close call, but of realizing there hadn't been 
cause to worry. It was better, I thought, that he didn't ignore me. 

I stole another glance at the light in the sky and began walking again. 


As I returned to the floodlit site, I heard shouting and saw someone 
standing on top of the behemoth sandcastle: a teenager with long black hair 
and a chain around his neck, kicking and punching and screaming 
incomprehensibly as if he were having a mental breakdown. I stopped in fear 
when I noticed the crowd below cheering him on. 

"What are they doing? Someone has to stop this, now!" 
"I know it hurts," someone replied, "but this has to happen." 
It was the child who built the castle. A few others were there, still 
following him, as shocked by the destruction as I was, but not overcome by it. 
"Little boy," I said over the screaming, "you worked for so long and it 
was so beautiful, how can you just stand by and watch?" 

Off on the boardwalk, I spotted a uniformed officer. The badge I'd 
wanted to be far away from was suddenly a welcome sight. 




The boy tapped me on the hip to get my attention back. "I'll build a 
better one, a castle he can't — " 

I sprinted across the sand near the crowd and up onto the boardwalk. 
The officer was sipping coffee and talking to an older woman. "Officer! 
Officer! Please help!" 

The man spun around toward me. "Is everything all right, sir?" 

Incredulous, I pointed to the scene. "That! Can't you hear that"? Can't 
you stop that!" I shouted, wondering how on Earth the man couldn't hear fifty 
zoo animals screaming nonsense only twenty meters away. 

"That?" The officer glanced over, completely oblivious. "Sir, that is 
just a pile of sand." 

I screamed and kicked at the door to my apartment, almost breaking 
the doorreader. . . again. The thing always needed an insane number of swipes 
before it would recognize the chip in my wrist and let me into my own living 
space. I decided I should've come straight home from ZephyrTek, that I 
could've just gone to bed thinking only of Vair on Maran; whether I would've 
felt better or worse about Times Square made little difference to me. Maybe I 
would've chosen alcohol instead of PJX and decided not to feel at all. 

I changed my clothes and polished my teeth, finally managing to relax. 
The fancy black and gold package was easy to tell apart, I put it on the 
countertop and threw the other three pieces of mail onto my messy coffee 
table. The whoosh caused a piece of paper to fall to the floor, a coupon I'd 
won in a raffle months before: good for three days at an ascension site called 
PaciTek. I'd forgotten about it and checked the expiration date: the end of the 
year. Not my first choice of how to spend the next few days, I considered, but 
my only choice. 

I grabbed the fancy package and took a deep breath as I tore at the seal. 



I popped the small black case open and gazed at the ring inside. It looked and 
sparkled exactly as it had days before in the kincubus, but I knew I wasn't 
feeling a simulation with simulated hands, but real with real: it had become a 
solid object with real meaning. The last few weeks had gone by so impossibly 
fast, and there were so many things to think about. I decided I would go 
forward with my plan, even if I wasn't sure why. 

And, if she turned me down. . . If she didn't want to be a wife. . . 

I tore open one of the ordinary packages: Receipts from my financial 
insurer. Next came the envelope with my train tickets. I opened it and ran my 
fingertips along the surface of the paper. It's a link, I thought, a guarantee I'll 
be thousands of miles away in New York when that ball drops. I remembered 
the movie tickets and how Vair joked with me when I was looking at those old 
posters in the lobby. I smiled. Maybe, I thought. No. 

She will say yes. 

On my counter was a printed image I took of her months earlier, 
posing in front of the Long Island Sound. I threw every other thought out of 
my mind and held the picture in my hands, imagining her answer, finding that 
the woman in my mind did love me. I put the picture on the table next to the 
open box and the ring. 

I found the confidence I wanted and I determined to go to bed before 
losing it again. "Lights off." The room went dark and my head hit the pillow. 
My eyes closed looking at the bedside clock, counting the three days before I 
would board my train and begin my journey, the five days to January first: the 
day I knew would be the best day of my life. . . the beginning of my life. My 
plans were real. My desires were real. No force in nature could've kept me 
from them. 

The date was Monday, December 27, 2179. The day I died. 

Chapter One: Limits 


We stand in awe of the parade. 

Where once the connections between us were few and distant, 
technology from rugged roads to smoothly orbiting satellites had 
allowed a new culture to flourish, one driven by the speed and essence 
of communication. In short centuries, the links became faster, more 
reliable, and more indwelled within us: moving from firsthand 
experience to recording, from the eyes and ears to direct connection 
with the brain. Information grew. History stopped fading away, but 
became part of the atmosphere. The imaginations of billions took on 
more power than had ever been known to man. 

Today, fact and fiction beckon for attention from every corner, 
offering to the commoners of the twenty-second century knowledge 
kings could once only dream to possess. It had been an irresistible 
temptation... the only place left to live, even after we'd forgotten what 
living was. Even as a voice within cried to get out of DR's snare, 
accepting three free days was all I knew to do. The illusions and 
fantasies still worked well enough, I told myself. 

When they had suddenly been rushed to their end, when they all 
went up in a brilliant flash of light, I found I couldn't ignore the 
hollowed-out shell I had become, and that I had no comfort to retreat 
to, as if illusions and fantasies had never worked at all. 

Any time we need to forget the troubles of modern life, the 
parade calls out to us. We stand in the assurance the parade will go on 
forever, existing to offer something new, stimulating the senses beyond 
the limits of yesterday. 

In days, I would die the death that should've taken decades. In 
days, I would reach my limit: the barrier standing at the end of the 
road. That was the day that had no future. That was the day I could 
only slow to a crawl and fall apart. That was the day I knew the barrier 
was real. 

That was the day another foot reached over mine and floored 
the pedal. 





I watched myself ascending from the ground, rising through the 
sprawling city landscape and toward the sky. The sunlight was so bright. I 
could feel its warmth through the glass. For a fleeting moment, it seemed I 
could forget everything. It seemed I could stay in that limbo forever. 

"You want happiness?" a woman's voice asked. 

"Yeah," I replied by reflex. 

"Then you want performance," the sultry voice replied. "You know the 
kind I'm talking about, Brandon. The kind that really makes you feel like a 

"Mute!" I shouted to the elevator's control system. The advertisement 

I leaned on the glass wall and tried to put New Year's out of my mind. 
The comfort and confidence I had going to sleep had long fled. Just like every 
other good thing in my life, it had been temporary. 

The doors chimed and opened onto the Reed Building's sixth floor, the 
lights inside painting shapes and patterns onto the Los Angeles street outside. 
A spacious lobby with bright, luminescent walls and bizarre fixtures awaited 
me. The doors to the real world closed behind me, and I felt as if I were 
already in Dynamic Reality. 

I felt as if I stepped into the distant future. 

A man was processing the check-out of a well-dressed family of five. 
The father looked like he was a CEO or something. I scanned the printed 
coupon in my hand again, thinking anything I had to pay for there wouldn't be 

The usual array of advertisements and legal notices lined the walls: 

printed, on-screen, holographic, and interactive. Even with a casual glance, I 
spotted the phrase "100% hacker-proof several times. I sighed and looked 
away, knowing how much that promise meant, knowing how much InTek 
meant it on their own advertisements. 

The man reminded me of the night manager at Zephyr Tek: probably 
still in college, constantly running around tapping on panels and always 
seeming exhausted from the job. I wondered how long it would be until this 
one was also replaced by a walking-talking light show. 

"What do you want?" 

I stepped up to the desk and gave him the coupon, which he didn't 
seem to recognize and had to scan through three different databases to verify. 
I attempted small-talk, asking idle questions and getting generic answers as he 
ran my registration. He mentioned something about business being slow the 
past couple of days, I asked why. 

"I dunno. . . bright ball of light in the sky. . . can't miss it. ,," 

I remembered my trip to the beach and couldn't deny that some interest 
had formed in me. It was so far yet so bright, a silly thing that would fade 
away and be forgotten. Yet people were having such reactions to it: hope, fear, 
curiosity, despair. 

"What do you think about that supernova?" I asked. 

The manager stopped for a second. His eyes seemed to shift a little, but 
he returned to his work without answering. 

I felt embarrassed and tried to distract myself. My wandering eyes 
peeked into the open door of the back office, where I saw a large man wearing 
boxing gloves - motionless and looking to a part of the room I couldn't see. 
He was probably watching the holograms fight when there weren't any 
customers. I heard a beep from the groundtem and he smacked it hard with his 
hand, obviously suppressing the urge to shout. 




Just a little anger. Nothing to worry about. 

The manager stoically asked me to sign with my thumbprint. I looked 
down to my own panel and saw the text of California's Safe Ascender Act of 
2166: the document I was required by state law to sign whenever I ascended 

I was led down to the dimly-lit fifth floor and through a couple of long 
hallways. I drank two days worth of stabilizer from the packet, wanting for it 
to be out of my system by the third day, in spite of the risk. The manager 
pressed his thumb on the panel for booth 515 and its opening appeared in the 
wall. Everything about the platform and interface looked familiar, if not a 
little nicer than the booths I was used to. 

After showing me the controls he was legally required to, the manager 
raced off and I activated the wall, shutting out the light of the hallway. I 
leaned onto the padded incline and relaxed my body, allowing the restraints to 
slide around my arms and legs. My SNDL synchronized with the booth's 
software and the familiar lightheadedness washed over me. 

Several seconds later, my implants showed I was ready for Rapid Eye 
Movement, ready to fall asleep without sleeping, to be in complete control 
over what my dream would be. 

My eyes were still open, as if they didn't want to close. I saw the 
darkness I was immersed in, hearing the silence, feeling and smelling the stale 
air. For the first time in many years, it all worried me. 

Reality is not here, just close your eyes. It's easy. 

I pushed my childish agitation aside and took a deep breath, reminding 
myself I'd ascended thousands of times before. With a surge of will, my eyes 
closed and I surrendered control. 

It was a beautiful spring day in a barren, contested land; beauty being 
relative, of course, in a war zone. 

I kept telling myself I had three days: plenty of time for bombing raids 
and adrenaline and replays. Where I normally jumped straight to the action, 
being in-and-out in hours, this time I gave myself an 'acclimation period': 
picking up a Softball bat and seeing how the battle simulation handled its own 
downtime. That first idea passed quickly, though, since I was terrible at sports. 
After my third out, I was content to sit in the stands and watch the game. 

I tried to imagine how terrifying it was, with the possibility of enemy 
troops hiding behind any hill - or even sitting in the stands as spies - the 
troops knowing the next day they would be deep in enemy territory, in mortal 
danger. It made me feel better to immerse myself in it, smiling as I considered 
my choice of war: Korea, 1952. 

That country's why I'm not making money right now, after all. 

Battle simulations were an early favorite of mine. In Standard Reality, 
my grandfather made his career in the Air Force. He retired after the Ninety 
East War and moved back to Idaho when I was still a kid growing up there. I 
enjoyed hearing him talk about battles and became something of an 
enthusiast. I even considered joining the military myself, which made him 
happy; my grandfather was always a little disappointed my dad hadn't signed 
up, and everyone knew my brother had hated it, though he wasn't exactly a 

Always the history buff, my grandpa frequently talked about wars, 
especially the Second World War, which occurred in the 1940's and involved 
most of the countries in the world. Even when I was younger, twentieth and 
twenty-first century battle recreations weren't hard to find in Dynamic 
Reality. Playable combat scenarios, historical or fictional, were a hot item on 
many servers. 




Softball ended early for an 1830 briefing - 1830 being a local time, 
used when the world was divided into time zones - and I sat in a crowded 
room with other pilots as our commanding officer gave us details on our 
targets, the expected weather, recent enemy movements, and so on. The whole 
thing became boring after the first few minutes, and I reminded myself that 
briefings were another part of combat that always got abridged or left out. I 
tried to focus, or at least I wanted to try, but my mind kept wandering and I 
even yawned loudly at one point. I knew the simulated characters weren't 
programmed to react, but found myself wondering what the CO would've 
done in a real briefing when a real soldier yawned. I brushed the thought away 
and began using a pencil to doodle on the back of the wooden chair in front of 
me. I even conjured a bag of flavored tortilla chips and began crunching away. 

Three days and absolutely nothing to do. 

The orders I knew I would be given were to fly my F-86 Sabre in 
formation into enemy territory, through an area known fondly as 'MiG Alley,' 
where engagements with the Soviet-built jets were common. I considered 
which I should do: play the game according to the rules or make up my own 
rules; escort our bombers and bring them safely back to Kimpo or fly clear 
into China, alone, and fire at anything that moved. 

Three days. Three days. Three days. I guess that's enough time to make 
up my own rules. 

I smiled at my decision. The enemy never knew what they were in for, 
since I wasn't shy about resetting my fuel level and ammunition mid-flight, 
repairing any severe damage my plane took with a simple command. 

My smile faded when my eyes landed on one of the pilots in front of 
me: his face sported a huge and ugly scar. I was in a war-game, the other 
characters were supposed to look bruised and beaten, but something about his 
scar bothered me. I knew real pilots couldn't reset or leave when they lost the 

game, but I couldn't figure out why my gaming ambitions suddenly made me 
feel so... 

Everyone suddenly stood up. With a few encouraging but cautious 
words, we were dismissed. I bent down to retrieve my dropped pencil, and 
spotted lines that seemed to form letters on the back of the chair. I tried to 
decipher them from among the markings, and a word emerged from the noise. 
I had no answer for where it came from. 


I regretted that no one still used jet engines, as I stood in the hangar 
and admired the machine I would be flying the next day. Hours passed as I 
tried to read the pre-flight checklist, opening panels, reading gauges, and 
learning more about fighter jets than that they flew really fast and shot at 
things. At every turn I witnessed the complexity of the thing, feeling so stupid 
yet more curious as I admired the innovation and directed creativity of those 
who designed and built the plane, those who left the world with a better jet 
than they found. I noticed the grease had made my hands as dark as the sky 
outside, and that it was getting all over the checklist and wiring diagrams. 

"Command vanitar: reset." 

A slight tingling passed through my hands and they were clean, just as 
my hair and uniform were, as if I'd just entered the simulation. 

I looked at all the parts on the floor and open panels on the plane, 
wondering whether I should try to put them all back in. I shuffled through the 
diagrams, showing me all the measurements and settings that had to be 
exactly right, reminding me that airworthy F-86's didn't just fall out of the sky 
or assemble themselves. Slowly, I tried to piece everything back together. 

"How in hell do you expect to fly that in ten hours, Dauphin?" 




I tilted my head to see a couple of airmen approaching from outside: 
two of the pilots who had been at the briefing. The shorter of them walked up 
to me and asked if I had a match, pulling a cigarette out of his uniform's shirt 

"Sorry airman, I don't even smoke." 

He looked at me like I sprouted three heads. His friend laughed. 

"You picked a helluva time to quit, Dauphin! C'mon! We're dying here." 

I rummaged through my pockets and pulled out a piece of thin, folded 

"Wait. Aren't there flammable things in here?" 

The shorter man grabbed my matches and struck one with a fast, expert 

"So? You gonna rat me out? Looks like you'll be in hot water when the 
commander finds out your plane's in a million pieces." 

He was right, my memory hadn't served me well and pieces didn't 
seem to fit properly, as if all the nuts were trying to be bolts or something. My 
curiosity and awe had long turned into frustration. 

I let the wrench I was holding fall to the concrete. "Good point." 

The taller man lit the paper thing in his mouth and they gleefully took 
in their hourly doses of tobacco. I turned and gathered the technical papers. 
"Command object local F-86: reset." 

Environmental Control busy. 

I put the papers on the desk and turned around. The jet was still 

"Command object local F-86: reset," I said louder, as if the computer 
didn't hear me the first time. 

Environmental Control busy. 

I cleared the return message and sighed, knowing sometimes servers 

just got packed with ascenders or needed maintenance. 

I heard music in the hangar. The shorter man had set up a Vaughn 
Monroe album on a nearby turntable and took another deep drag. 

"So, smoking helps you relax before a mission?" I asked. 

"That or drinking," replied the taller one, without any hint of humor. 

"You ever been shot down before, Dauphin?" the shorter asked. I 
noticed his nametag read Arnall. The taller was Olian. 

Arnall faced me, seeming grimly serious. Words didn't come. 

It's not that I can't answer the question, I thought. I've been shot down 
in simulations. . . I just never had to face the consequences they did in the real 
battles. Why's a game character asking me this, anyway? I can tell them 
anything and it wouldn't matter. 

"Yeah," I finally said. "A few times." 

Arnall took another drag. "Then you know that nothing quite prepares 
you for it. Relax? No such thing." 

Olian exhaled. "I've been lucky, myself. But every time we go out 
there I know I could be next. I pray to God every night this war ends soon." 

"If Truman had let MacArthur finish the job, we'd be back in Japan by 
now," Arnall said. "Hell, I would've chased 'em all the way to Moscow if he 
wanted, and have been happy to do it, too." 

I smirked. "Communism. What a stupid game. .." 

The two stared horrifically at me. 

"Do you think this is some kind of a game?" 

"Hey, Dauphin! I'm talking to you!" Arnall shouted when I didn't 
answer. I looked back at him, in his eyes, and realized he really was serious. I 
took a step back and sent a new command, straight through my implants, for 
the computer for jump to the next day. 

Environmental Control busy. 




I repeated the command. 

Environmental Control busy. 

The Arnall character seemed ready to hit me. 

"We're getting killed out there! Abducted! If we crash behind the lines 
and get caught... do you know what those commies do to POWs?! And they 
don't even care back home! We — " 

Olian put a hand on Arnall's shoulder. 

"It's late and we've gotta fly tomorrow," he said. "Maybe we should 
get to the barracks." 

Without another word, the two left me alone with my shock, anger and 
embarrassment: certainly not what I'd had in mind for acclimation, certainly 
not my idea of fun. I started cursing and kicking tools across the floor. 

"Lemme at 'em, I want to kill something!" 

I tried different commands, trying to send myself directly into some 
kind of combat; but I was denied my wish. The same response followed my 
every thought and shout. 

Environmental Control busy. 

Walking outside, with my anger vented and boredom creeping back, I 
found a few cigarettes in my pocket and decided to try one. I wouldn't cough 
on simulated smoke and thought the sensation of it might help me unwind. I 
broke off a match and swiped it as Arnall had, only to see the first match 
break. I sighed and broke off a second, using less pressure. I jumped when the 
entire match flashed into smoke and ash. 

Maybe smoking really was dangerous. 

A jeep pulled up about a hundred meters away. Four soldiers got out 
and two others emerged from a tent. With nothing better to do, I decided I 

may as well redeem myself. . . so long as I remembered not to call combat a 
game. I saw them smoking, as always, and decided to indulge myself in a 
more modern habit, computer willing. I was relieved to find I could still 
conjure a slampak of Amber Plus. 

Among those from the jeep was a Private with a swollen eye, earned 
from a fist-fight just moments earlier. As the two from the tent prodded him 
with questions, the injured man realized he couldn't remember what the fight 
was about. 

A man leaning on the vehicle's open door spotted me and demanded to 
know if I was drinking whiskey. I froze and realized he had actually seen my 
slampak. The officer, wearing an MP armband, starting walking toward me 
and I hid the energy drink behind my back, trying to change it into a canteen 
of water. 

Environmental Control busy. 

"Airman Dauphin! Give me that before I call your CO!" he demanded. 

Not knowing what else to do, I gave him the slampak. He quickly 
decided it wasn't alcoholic, but couldn't make out what it was. He shot me an 
angry glance and walked back to the group, passing around the strange 
beverage from two hundred years in the future. They couldn't even decide 
what the transparent container was made of, let alone how it glowed colors or 
why weird sounds came from it whenever it was tilted - the modern gimmicks 
actually proving more amusing to them than distressing. Fortunately, one of 
them tasted it and decided it wasn't a communist secret weapon. 

"It's a new kind of Coca Cola," I said. It was the first thing I could 
think of that dated properly. 

The MP didn't like any answer I gave. "We can't even get good C- 
rations and this guy's getting Coca-friggin'-Cola... and new stuff at that!" He 
grabbed the slampak and started gulping at it to spite me. The other men 




struggled to hold their laughter at the obnoxious sound an Amber Plus makes 
when someone drinks from it. 

Another man among them, not wearing a uniform, began stirring up 
the crowd by saying the Air Force was getting better stuff. "Who needs 
ground troops when you can throw jets and nuclear missiles at the commies! 
I'm getting grazed by bullets and this guy's got some new fangled cola!" 

Why is this happening? What's going on? 

I again sent the command to jump forward. 

Environmental Control busy. 

A lump formed in my throat and I began to feel numb, powerless, 
trapped. I sent the command to leave the construct. 

Environmental Control busy. 

I shouted a curse and sent a command to remove the characters. 

Environmental Control busy. 

A deep, sinking feeling overtook me. I didn't know what to do. I 
wanted to disappear. I knew if I didn't leave soon, I might end up with a 
swollen eye myself. I decided I wanted out and I was getting out. With a fast 
and expert motion of my own, I pulled up my arm and planted my finger right 
on the red button. 

"Why don't you just hit the big red button right now," the plain-clothed 
man shouted to no one and everyone, "so we can all go home to our wives and 

"That's what I'm trying to do." I pushed again. Hard. 

The others cheered. I felt like I could collapse onto the ground. All the 
words and images began running together in my panicked mind. I 
remembered to breathe. My own breathing was all I could hear. The plain- 
clothed man stood silently with a puzzled look on his face, looking as if he 
might start crying. 

Something jumped off in the distance. I quickly looked but saw only 


The man spoke with soft, labored words. "My wife. I — I can't 
remember her name. I — I can't remember my wife's name, or my kids!" 

"It's the stress," one of the privates responded, "we've got a lot on our 
plates right now, that's all. You were telling me about the missus last week, 
said her name was..." He couldn't remember the woman's name either. The 
woman didn't exist, the kids didn't exist. They were personal information 
randomly assigned to game characters. They weren't supposed to be 

All of the characters in the group were suddenly discovering huge 
memory gaps of their own, using their AI minds to try to connect people, 
places, and events that simply didn't. 

I saw the strange movement again. Immediately, the sound of rifle fire 
ripped through the eerie calm, followed by more gunfire and distant shouting. 
The radio in the jeep crackled and panicked voices streamed onto the 
frequency. The sky rumbled behind me. I spun around just in time to see a 
MiG-15 roar meters above my head. I fell to the ground. The noise intensified 
and the smoke thickened all around me. 

"Please! Please!" I pressed the red button repeatedly. 

No one can hear me! No one can save me! Nothing is working! 
Something is very wrong! The simulation is tearing itself apart with me inside 
it! I'm going to be torn apart! 

Countless MiGs passed over the base, their bullets coming faster with 
each passing second. My finger was down on the button, holding it down. 
Buildings were catching fire and confused men were shouting in every 
direction, not sure where the enemy was, acting against anyone and everyone. 
The word "nuclear" came from the static of the radio. Someone said ICBMs 




had been fired from both sides. 


An incredible flash appeared directly ahead of me, dissolving into the 
unmistakable form of a mushroom cloud. The radio was dead. Everything 
suddenly fell away and became silent. A hot wind licked my face and a tear 
fell down my cheek. Night became day for an instant, then returned to night 

In the dark and hostile sky I could see only one object, getting closer. 

My life came rushing back to me. I thought of the happy times of my 
childhood, raised by parents who loved me. I thought of the friends I wished I 
kept, and the sister who missed me. I thought of the brother I hated and 
wished more than anything I'd tried to patch things up. Most painfully of all, I 
thought of Vair and the future that would never happen. I thought of all the 
good I never did in the world. I thought of all the good I would never be able 
to do. 

Through all the noise, one last thing would capture my attention. 
Nothing in the corner of my eye. Nothing subtle. It may have been the dying 
throes of a haywire construct or some crazy connection problem. I didn't care 
about its cause. All I remembered was how beautiful I thought it was. 
The trees were dancing. 

Chapter Two: An End Without a Beginning 

If someone dies in Dynamic Reality, do they die in Standard 
Reality, too? 

Whenever a bell-ringer introduces a child to an intense enough 
game, the same question always comes up. Why shouldn't fake 
danger that can be seen, heard, and felt as well as the real thing lead 
to the same natural thoughts? 

If someone dies in a game, do they die in real life, too? 

I remember the wonder of my first encounter with DR, as I 
received its blessing to do as I wished, when I wished. Even when I 
witnessed characters getting killed in vivid gory fashion, even when the 
question neared my own lips and burned in my own heart, I threw it 
back at any who dared speak it... who dared to make it real, to 
empower the question and suggest the need of an answer. 

If I die in here, do I die out there? 

We were kids! What did we care about death? We couldn't get 
enough of the fantastic imagery and realistic role-play. We were gods 
and gods couldn't die. 

But life wasn't about spending every moment ascended or 
stroking the most precious ego. Kids had to grow up and start acting 
like adults. 

It was my life. I did what I wanted. I declared war and conjured 
the people to fight them, hurling my lightning bolts down from the sky 
onto whomever I declared to be the enemy. 

When war declared back, I found I was completely unarmed. I 
found all my life was was a lit match, burning softly through the 




wooden handle, beyond the initial flare-up of vibrancy and curiosity 
and questions. When I realized I wasn't a god, the question didn't 
seem so childish anymore. 

Did I die? 

It's true what they say, your life does flash before your eyes; but 
few people get to look back on that moment of clarity and use it to 
build a better future. 

The first thing I remembered was pain; not phony-attenuated DR pain, 
but pain as if I'd really been kicked in the stomach. I was disoriented and felt 
sick from a rush of adrenaline. My nerves still tingled from the burning heat 
of the shock wave, and the noise around me blended seamlessly with the 
echoes of bombs in my head. I looked up and saw the large man who nearly 
tripped over me. I didn't think I was in Korea anymore. 

"Are you retarded or something, kid? Move!" 

I felt a hard jab in my lower back and a woman fell, dropping hot 
coffee close to my face. She also became irate, shouting four-letter words as 
she vanished into the crowd without offering to help me up or anything. 

Even standing didn't help; people were constantly bumping and 
shoving me. I was in a large room filled with people wearing suits, badges, 
and microphones. Old-style flat monitors and split-beam projectors were 
everywhere, displaying stock prices and advertisements for public 
corporations. I was standing in the New York Stock Exchange . 

One of the traders brushed against my descender. Memories surged 
back and my panic with them. I yanked my arm back and stared at the 
device's red button. 

"It's just Dynamic Reality," I said to myself, "this is nothing you can't 
control." I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pressed the red button. 

The sounds remained. 

"It's just Dynamic Reality," I repeated, "this is nothing you can't 

The button was dead, connected to nothing. I looked desperately to see 
if anything was out of place, trying to get some idea of what such a place was 
supposed to look like. In 2179, the building on Wall Street was a museum, 




which I'd never been to. I began walking through the crowd again, trying to 
think of ways to escape from a runaway simulation. 

Going through what seemed like the exit, I had a half-dozen flyers 
shoved into my hand as I passed Wall Street's Summary Venture Center. I 
started toward the daylight of the street but sensed something familiar behind 
me. I stood in the crowd, looking into some kind of upper-class casino. Part of 
me wanted to leave, while another part was drawn to something within, 
something unseen. 

The feeling became stronger as I walked past the slot and gloss-poker 
machines. I recognized it as the "feeling of presence" ascenders pick up over 
time, an instinct players get when someone else enters a closed game session. 
It led me toward the blackjack table in the far corner of the room, where a 
woman was dealing cards. In stark contrast to the room of twenty-first century 
executives, this woman wore a heavy green military uniform and hat. My 
steps slowed, but I still drew myself closer. A bald man wearing an orange suit 
abruptly darted into my path. 

"Sir, can I see your badge?" 

The woman didn't seem to notice me. I couldn't shake the impression 
she was watching me... somehow. I passed around the protesting security 
guard. Still she ignored me, but one move of her arm told me everything I 
needed to know. She had a descender. 

"Excuse me!" I shouted as I got to the table. 

With a single swift motion, the woman looked at me, her dark-green 
eyes locking onto mine. She looked younger up close than I thought she 
would be, maybe eighteen or twenty. The insignia left no doubt that hers was 
a Soviet uniform from the war simulation, though she bore the face of a 
modern American. Her skin tone was slightly tan and a small amount of white 
hair showed from underneath her service cap. Her eyes seemed distant, 

revealing no hint of emotion for me to read. 

Without looking down, the woman set two cards on the table. 

"Why is one more desired than two?" she asked. 

There was some strange monotone in her voice, which I only seemed 
to notice because of her stiff and unnatural body language, that made me feel 
tense. I looked down and saw the cards were the Ace of Diamonds and the 
Two of Spades. "I don't know. I don't play stupid games." 

"Communism is a stupid game, you said that," she replied coolly. 

"Who are you? What are you doing? Why am I here?" 

"Communism failed. Capitalism is performing poorly." 

I turned back toward the room, making it obvious I had no idea what 
she was talking about. 

"After that war," she continued in the same even voice, "the United 
States and the Soviet Union adopted a policy of 'Mutually Assured 
Destruction,' wherein they destroyed each other. Why did your people want to 
do that?" 

Is this girl wheeled? Why is she asking such dumb questions? That 
didn't actually happen! 

I turned back to her and spoke in a low tone similar to hers. "I don't 
care. Let me out of here." 

"The doors are marked. Go where you wish." As quickly as she had 
turned to me, she turned back and resumed dealing to players. 

"Excuse — " I began to shout again when I was grabbed from behind. I 
saw three security guards, including the man I'd already encountered. 

"Sir, if I can't see your badge I'll have to show you the door." 

"Look, simul-lamewad, I'm talking to someone!" I turned back to the 
woman. "Give me back control!" 

A different woman, wearing a Dow Jones uniform, was behind the 




table. The woman in the Soviet uniform was gone, and the feeling of presence 
with her. 

I wandered down the sidewalk and tried to think where a simulation of 
twenty-first century Manhattan might be running, wondering if there were 
others beside the woman in it. 

The emergency button still wasn't working and whatever control 
system governed the place was ignoring my commands, denying me even the 
error messages. Noise from people, construction, subways, community music, 
crying babies and so on made it impossible to think. There had to be another 
way out, I knew, but all that came to my mind were scattered rumors and 
endings to DR-themed horror movies. 

Clap twice with the back of your hands. 


Run through a concrete wall. 

Maybe if nothing else works. 

Click my heels together three times. 

That's from the Wizard of Oz movie! 

I stopped and shook my head, feeling ridiculous. I couldn't shake the 
feeling of being watched, like a victim in some reality show, my squirming 
broadcast to the world and then hounding me forever. 

Some networks will do anything for ratings, I thought. I wouldn't be 
the first to get used like that. But what can I do to get out of it? 

An Asian man appeared from the crowd and handed me a flyer for a 
grocery store. An idea occurred to me and I grabbed his shoulder. 

Somewhere in his interactive-whatever there must be some 
subroutine-thing I can trigger, I thought. Something they shoved in there just 

for these occasions. 

"I want to leave. I want to descend." I said, as loudly and clearly as I 
could. The man didn't seem to understand me. 

"Command logoff! Command exit! Command status!" 

The man fearfully tore himself away and bolted into the crowd, leaving 
a trail of flyers on the sidewalk. 

No, No, No, No, No! This can't be right! Maybe they have to speak 

I stepped toward another man. A loud honk stopped me. A taxi, one of 
New York's famous yellow taxis, had appeared on the street only a few meters 
away. The man inside, looking at me, honked again and waved me forward. I 
looked around again, certain someone was watching. He honked a third time, 
the sound seeming more clear and intense, the path between me and the car 
cleared of people, as if the construct itself were encouraging my direction. I 
ducked my head through the open passenger window. 

"You look lost. Can I help you get somewhere?" the driver asked, with 
all the charm of an amai. I climbed into the back seat. 

"I want to leave. I want to descend." 

"We're already on the ground," he replied. "If you want to descend I 
recommend the subway." 

"No. I want to access the computer that's running this program." 

I read a look of confusion on his face. 

This won't work either. There are taxis all over the place in New York, 
maybe it was just a coincidence one was right here. Maybe no one se... se... 

My train of thought derailed and my vision became mists and shadows. 
The noise of the city faded like a dream and my senses went blank. 

Yes! It worked! I'm descending! 




I fell back like a rock in water. I felt my body lying flat on some 
cushions. A shadow darkened my eyelids and I heard loud snapping. 

"I'm awake. I'm awake." I found the strength to say as I struggled to 
open my eyes, looking up into the daylighting. I was greeted by three PaciTek 
employees and an LAPD officer. We were surrounded by the same marble and 
gold pillars I saw hours before, outside, in the park-level entrance of the Reed 

The PaciTek people explained to me, in great detail, that some conflict 
arose between their servers and the one I was connected to, causing the 
booth's software to corrupt and lock up. The officer listened and filled out her 
statement, doing everything by the book and taking no sides when I began 
arguing about lawsuits and mental anguish. The man who woke me conjured 
an aire window, showing my thumbprint on the Safe Ascender Act form. I 
knew the nature of HNADC technology made diving in groups safer, 
regardless of the A-site's own security. I had legally acknowledged the risks 
of ascending alone. I had no case. 

A breeze went through the open-air level underneath the building, 
rustling the leaves of the trees surrounding me, reminding me of the city street 
beyond. I asked why we weren't by the booths, or even on one of their floors. 
The supervisor explained that they had to remove me from the booth without 
breaking the connection. Before I could press for details, the officer broke in 
and asked me to confirm the statement's data before she filed it. 

Officer Stephanie Morales - the name she put on the statement - then 
began talking to me about an "intensive memory scan," saying it could help 
me in a case for mental anguish. I considered the idea, though it seemed odd, 
and the officer's sudden insistence for it was making me uncomfortable. 

When I noticed the PaciTek people had left, I wanted nothing more than to get 
out of there. 

"Is the scan required by law or can I go now?" I finally asked. 

Go ahead, I thought. Say "yes, it's required." I dare you. 

"I am making a suggestion that would benefit you, Mister Dauphin." 

"You're a cop. You're not supposed to offer me legal advice, especially 
not something so outrageous." 

"Isn't it the obligation of a police officer to serve the public? I should 
do anything I can to allow you to resume your normal life." 

I considered the way she behaved and spoke: not quite real, not quite 
fake... not quite anything. The officer turned away and waited for my 

"Just let me go home. I can take care of myself." 

She hesitated, as if deep in thought, not even moving or blinking; then 
she suddenly began walking away. 

"Go where you wish," she replied. 

Sunset turned to night and the air became cold. It rained the whole way 


Good, I thought. I want to be miserable. 

I splashed in deep puddles and walked under dripping gutters. A 
metrocab pulled up next to me, reminding me of my encounter with the New 
York taxi, except modern taxis were driven remotely by AIs, and used flashier 
tactics to attract passengers. I didn't hesitate to yell something unpleasant at 
the hologram and the car drove itself away. I had no money and was in no 

Construction blocked the road when I was still several blocks from my 




apartment. Had the next street up been open, I doubt I would have even 
noticed the detour; but the next street was closed too, and the next. 

Who works on a road in pouring rain? 

"How ya doing? Cold night, huh? Are you tired of those cellular 
carriers who keep — " 

I waved my soaking hand in front of her face. "Just stop!" 

Surprisingly, she did. I almost continued walking without noticing it, 
but the hologram had actually listened to me. I knew immediately something 
was very different, different with all the technology around me. 

I pulled back my hand. No response. 

"Charging — You — No — Error — Process — " 

"Mister Dauphin," she suddenly looked at me and said, "you should 
consider the offer I'm authorized to extend to you. I possess a substantial 
amount of data on competing cellular carriers that will convince — " 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," I said, relieved. "Look, I don't know if this is 
yet another new technique - talking like the robot you are - or some 
malfunction; so lets make this quick..." I leaned in close. "How do you feel 
right now? It's a cold night and it's raining, I'm miserable, you process that 
word - that feeling. Then I can watch you freeze up and maybe feel a little 

"But, Mister Dauphin," she responded, restored to full customer- 
service glee, "maybe you're miserable because you have poor cellular service. 
Here are the facts: Sixty percent — " 

I rolled my eyes and started back down the sidewalk. 

Bits of light appeared in front of me. The flickering slowly took on a 
human shape and became the same hologram. "Brandon, if you're not 
interested in cellular service, then please let me help you with something 

My relief faded. The hologram was clearly malfunctioning and it was 
disturbing me. 

"Look, you wanna be helpful? Just tell me how many of these roads 
are closed." 

She beamed back at me. "I'm sorry, Mister Dauphin. I can't supply 
traffic information, but I can pre-qualify you for — " 

"No! I know you can connect to some online thing and tell me what 
streets are open. Do that and I'll look at whatever you're selling." 

The hologram paused for a moment. "The next block will be open, sir." 

I took the first couple of steps and stood next to her. The hologram 

"Thank you. . . I guess." 

I reached the next block and found the street open and empty. 

What jumped out of Vair and into me to get a sales-hologram to do 
something useful? Was it because it was malfunctioning? Will that even work 
next time? 

Next time. 

My feet became heavier and I couldn't move. I stood under the canopy 
of a darkened store, seeing the road ahead of me: wet, lonely, even hostile. I 
thought my home was at the end of that road, but I had no direction, and I had 
no destination. My legs wobbled and I felt ill. I leaned on the marble wall and 
tried to breathe. 

Next time. 

Like a song stuck in my head, the two words wouldn't leave me alone. 
Except songs were useful distractions, while the words were a call to the 
future, a goal, a question that probed for an answer. 

Next time. 

There is no next time. No future. Why can't I stop thinking? Why can't 




I just shut it off? Thursday can't come fast enough, at least then I — 

My eyes widened. A sinking feeling tore through my soul and my legs 
nearly gave out under me. I fought against the realization as I thought I 
should, but it was already too late. 

That's what it's about, I thought. She's just a distraction for me. That's 
all she can ever mean. I — I don't want to do that to her, she deserves better 
than a fraud like me. 

I won't do it. I won't marry Vair. 

"I won't marry Veronica!" 

I shuddered, feeling myself go numb at the decision. I thought of every 
reason I couldn't go forward: no job, family a million kilometers away, good 
at making friends but bad at keeping them. 

I tried to reconsider, to tell myself the words hadn't left my mouth, that 
no such doubts existed. But I knew I was confronting the truth. I knew I 
couldn't just shoo it away. 

I saw movement on the other side of the street. I tried to pull myself 

What am I doing? These streets are dangerous at night. 

I forced my legs back into action and continued through the rain, 
carrying myself one step at a time... just wanting to go back to sleep and to 
forget I was ever born. A signal came from my SNDL, and I immediately 
rejected it. They dinned me again. 

Who's Ethan Underhill? 

I rejected again. Ethan tried a third time. 


"Whoa! Hey, Brandon... it's Ethan Underhill! Ya' know, from Miller 
Junior High!" 

"What? Yeah, Miller Junior High. Who is this?" 

"Ethan! You know, you used to call me 'Anime'!" 

"What do you want?" 

"I'm in LA and I was hoping we could catch up!" 

I raised my eyes and held out my arms in an unseen gesture of "are you 

"Look, Ethan. This isn't a good time. Why don't I call you back 

"Well. Sure. If you— " 

A fourth metrocab - a fourth vacant metrocab - passed as I 
disconnected Ethan. I looked behind me and down every alley, examining the 
windows of every building, looking to see who was watching me. If someone 
wanted to share this awful day, I decided, they were welcome to it. 

I was soaked from head to toe as I finally approached my apartment 
building on Helms Avenue. Under the diminishing rain, I prepared for the 
daily ritual of getting the front doorreader to recognize me. 

The door chimed and unlocked. I actually stared in disbelief long 
enough for it to time out and re-lock. I swiped again and the ratty old metal 
door responded again. The reader still looked worn on the outside, but I 
decided they must have replaced the sensor or something. 

As if the first surprise weren't enough, the smell of fresh paint hit me 
as I opened the door. The hallways, even the doors, all had new paint, 
carpeting, and lights. I was tempted to look outside and make sure I hadn't 
walked into the wrong building. I got into the elevator and its now-shiny 
doors closed behind me. 


The machinery was quiet and the ride was smooth. I wondered if my 
rent had just shot up. The fourth floor had also been redone. I walked down 
the soft carpeting and reached my door. My own doorreader was the real test: 




it was eighty times worse then the one outside ever was. 

Perhaps they changed that too? 

Bursting with anticipation, I slid my wrist in front of the panel. Once. 
The chime marked the high point of my day. 


But the day's emotional roller coaster merely set me up for another big 

I'd been robbed. 

The second statement I filed with the Los Angeles Police Department 
contained little more than the story of hackers' pranks and a description of the 
woman from the blackjack table. When the officer went looking for witnesses, 
none of my neighbors answered their doors and my landlord was nowhere to 
be found. When I talked about the entire building being refurbished in less 
than nine hours without the tenants' knowledge, the officer seemed to think 
nothing of it. 

I couldn't sleep there even if I'd wanted to: my walls were torn to 
shreds and even my carpeting was ripped up, leaving the place completely 
unrecognizable. The officer issued me dry clothes and asked if I wanted a ride 
to somewhere, as if I had anywhere to go. No one was answering my dins and 
I needed someone to talk to, and a spare bed or sofa to sleep on. I just got one 
voicemail system after another, even my parents'. No one had responded by 
the time I reached the Value Inn a few blocks away. 

Though it may have been on the low-end of the price scale, the hotel 
seemed like a beacon in the night, a palace for the weary traveler fate had 
turned me into. The scent of freshly-brewed amped coffee felt more 
welcoming than that of paint, and the soft carpeting was worn enough for me 

to know the owner hadn't gone on a remodeling spree. I heard the voices of 
AI news anchors coming from the far side of the downstairs lobby, where an 
empty sitting area sported leather sofas and a half-dozen monitors tuned to 
various networks. I picked up one of the fresh croissants sitting on a nearby 
desk and my spirits seemed to lift a little. 

A tall blonde appeared behind the counter. 'Welcome to Value Inn, my 
name is Rachael. How can I help you?" 

"Can I be helped by a real person, please?" I replied as I poured some 
coffee for myself. The hologram vanished and I heard a chime in the back 
office. A middle-aged woman with brown hair emerged. 

"Good evening. Is there a problem?" 

I hesitated at the sight of an actual person, knowing how rare the 
option had become and doubting my good fortune. I snapped out of it and 
approached the counter. "No... No problem. I'd like to check in, please." 

The woman's nametag said her name was Sylvia. She promptly set to 
work on the groundtem, beginning the check-in process and all the 
identification involved. 

Is everyone else having the technology problems too? Is she here just 
in case? Maybe she just assumed "Rachael" was glitching on me. 

"Okay. Now we wait a few minutes for the background checks." Sylvia 
reclined in a chair. "So, Mister Dauphin, are you traveling?" 

"No. Uh... I'm actually having some trouble with my apartment right 
now. I just need a place to settle down for the night." 

"Aah. And tomorrow?" 

I smiled politely and went back to the desk. "I'll worry about that 
when I get there." 

"Well," she replied too eagerly. "Let me know if there's any way I can 
make tomorrow better." 




I reached for a second croissant, but decided I wasn't hungry anymore. 
"Tomorrow can't be better... Just please hurry with the check-in, I'd really 
like to be alone right now." 

"Alone? Why?" 

I looked back at her as if insulted. "Why? Why does there have to be a 
reason for everything?" 

"I'm sorry," she replied. "You don't have to talk about anything you 
don't want to." 

A moment passed. Sylvia waited patiently and I felt even more like a 
horrible human being. 

"Look. . . Sylvia, right?" She looked up. "I didn't mean to snap at you 
or anything, I just... I'm just really having a bad day. Maybe you know what 
I'm talking about: technology." 

"Technology," she repeated, more as a thought than an 

"Yeah, and here I am," I continued, a more genuine smile forming on 
my face, "being helped by a friendly, flesh-and-blood person and I'm treating 
her like some statick hologram. Maybe I'm just not used to conversations like 
this anymore, you know?" 

I grabbed the second croissant. 

"Given a choice, you chose against the hologram." 

"Yeah, doesn't everybody?" I walked back toward the counter. "Let me 
ask you something." I paused and confirmed she was listening, taking comfort 
at the attention. "Do you ever think life would be so much better if people just 
switched all the billboards and holograms and groundtems off and took the 
time to talk to each other?" 

"I don't know. . . technology is making this a better world every day." 

"Not this day." 

Sylvia didn't respond. I sighed and tried to relax. 

"Do you have any kids? If you don't mind my asking, that is." 

"Yeah, three sons and a daughter." 

"What do think will happen in the future? To their kids' future? 
Technology may cure a disease or help inform us, but I think it's just getting 
more annoying." 

"Oh, I see." The groundtem beeped. "Congratulations, Mister 
Dauphin," Sylvia said, "you are not a serial killer." 

I sighed again and stared off into the room. "My mom will be thrilled 
to hear it." 

"The room is fifteen-eighty per night plus taxes and I take it you won't 
need a room with a ground terminal. Breakfast is at sixteen zeroes, checkout 
at twenty-one. Just swipe your wrist on the reader and the entry code will be 
for room 33A upstairs." 

"Thanks." I swiped my wrist by the reader and my chip recorded the 
access code. I heard something rustle and turned my attention to the room. 
Paranoia, I decided. 

"I really appreciate you coming out to help me," I said. 

"It's really my pleasure to help." 

With no bags to worry about, I refilled my coffee and grabbed a third 
croissant for the trip up. They were still as warm and inviting as when I'd 
walked in. 

"I mean. . . you know what I'm talking about, how a bad day can really 
get you down?" 

Maybe I'm beating myself up too much, I thought. I don't need her... 
and she can certainly take care of herself. I don't know, maybe we can still be 
friends... it's not like she'd ever expect a commitment from me anyway. I 
don't even have the ring anymore, so maybe it wasn't meant to be. I'll just be 




at Times Square with a friend. . . with a really. . . really. . . really good. . . 

The coffee cup slipped from my fingers. I cursed and grabbed a 


There was a brown stain on the carpet under the cup, as I expected; but 
the stain wasn't wet, as if it had been there for days. 

It seemed like a glitch in a game. 

The room was completely silent. Sylvia hadn't responded. A horrible 
thought came to my mind. I stood up to face her, and all sensation left my 

The expression on her face was locked into a sort of cross between 
background processing, simulated reflection, and the continuous glee that is 
an amai's prime directive. It was the unmistakable look anyone familiar with 
modern artificial intelligence would recognize: a sign that an amai's software 
couldn't process the question properly. As it always does, this look suddenly 
broke into an equally bizarre action. 

Sylvia closed her eyes, chuckled, and said, "It has been a pleasure 
serving your BarresTek today, why not try again?" 

Chapter Three: Normal... Whatever That Is 

If someone became trapped in Dynamic Reality, how would they 
know what was real and what wasn't? What anchor can we rely on to 
tell the difference? 

It's not uncommon for people to say the world is falling apart 
around us. Even in strong economies, brothers still rob brothers, wars 
rage over deep-sea mineral rights, identity theft surges online, and 
tens of thousands die offline, as victims of the public arsons and 
massacres always flaring up somewhere in the world. 

Then, when the money stops... 

What anchors us to our happiness? How can we know if our 
foundations are built on sand or stone? When the tide goes low, how 
much of our foundation do we find leaving with the water? 

Why shouldn't people say the world is falling apart? We've 
achieved such great things, yet the rate of invention is slowing. We 
enjoy astronomical standards of living, yet we complain more than our 
ancestors. We're rich, but money is always losing value. We have so 
much knowledge, yet the value of information only goes down. There 
are still hungry people in the world... enough said. 

The tide rises and falls again, and we see the solutions still 
aren't working. Even as we embrace it, we see ourselves further from 
reality than ever before, and we see that speed has become our 
defense against the fragile things we built. 

I put my faith in a button. I never learned, and never wanted to 
do otherwise, until the old knowledge expired. I became trapped and 
disoriented, longing, even desperate, for anything to grab onto... as if I 




were in a bubble, knowing everything tangible was beyond my walls. 
Then a light reached out and entered into my bubble. The child's words 
were the only truth in an avalanche of lies. 

This light was a path for me, taking me far from where I wanted 
to be. 

And everywhere I needed to be. 

The scent of freshly-brewed amped coffee still lingered in the room. 
The croissant in my hand was still warm and fresh. Nothing in the lobby 
appeared out of place. All my senses said it was real. It had to be real. I 
wanted more than anything for it to be real. 

The woman's just toying with me, I thought. This is part of the gag... 
someone's idea of a joke. 

Several seconds passed, the only sound coming from a distant monitor 
in the sitting area. Nothing moved. Some intuition told me that, if I so much 
as breathed, the last frayed thread of reality in the world would break. 

"You're — not — real — are — " 

Sylvia's eyes snapped open. "No, Tyler. The correct answer was 'C, 
Nairobi, but that was a very — You have reached-the-BarresTek-dashboard- 
— " Sylvia's image began to lose cohesion and her words sped up until I 
couldn't understand them. After a few seconds she vanished. A feeling of 
presence surged within me. I dropped the pastry and ran to the other end of 
the lobby. The sitting area was empty. There were no footprints, no smells, no 
sounds... nothing. 

I turned off the monitor and listened carefully. I held up my wrist, 
covered in a cold sweat, and felt around my forearm, swallowing the lump in 
my throat. 

I realized someone was talking to me. A balding Latino man in a suit 
was standing where I had been. 

"Can I help you, sir?" he repeated. 

"You're not real, are you?" 

"I assure you that I'm very real," he said with a smile, gesturing to the 




counter. "I'm sorry to have fooled you. We're testing new software to improve 
our customer service. I can see your encounter wasn't exactly a positive one." 

"I don't appreciate being lied to! I am not having a good day here!" 

"Sir, Value Inn believes customer satisfaction should be our number 
one priority. If there is anything I can do to make this up to you, please don't 
hesitate to ask." 

His words and body language seemed perfectly genuine, but so had 
Sylvia's. I wondered if this man had pre-programmed personal information, 
kids and all, just like a character in a game. I wondered just how realistic the 
amai were becoming and whether I was falling into some global identity 
crisis, spreading throughout the human race. 

I knew I couldn't trust anything I saw. I knew I couldn't trust anything 
at all. 

The man took a step toward me. "Tell you what, your stay tonight is on us." 

"No!" My eyes darted around and I clung to a corner. "I can't stay here." 

"How about New York? Perhaps we could give you train tickets to 
New York." 

If this is a part of some heinous game, I considered, shouldn't it be 
some torturing or embarrassing nightmare? Why just interfere with my life? 
And now he wants to send me to New York. But Veronica's in New York. 
Veronica... maybe she can make it better, though. Yes... Veronica can tell me 
what's happening. She'll fix it, too. She fixes anything. 

No... if this is still a simulation then I can't reach her. Everything is 
too weird, I have to find out if I'm really awake. 

I emerged from the sitting area and walked cautiously toward the man. 
The smell of the coffee grew strong again. I felt the air I breathed and heard 
the noises from the street. I still wanted it to be real, but I knew wanting 
wouldn't solve the problem. I stood a meter from him and looked into his 

eyes, unsure whether he was man or machine. 
How can I find out if I'm really awake? 
"You want to make it up to me? Call me a cab.' 

The metrocab pulled over three blocks from the Reed Building. The 
amai in the front seat informed me the road was closed ahead and she couldn't 
proceed. As I opened the door, "Julia" eagerly tried to talk me into going other 
places around the city... or any city. I ignored her and walked toward the 
barriers and flashing lights. I knew that, if my hunch was right, there was no 
way I'd be able to get back to PaciTek. 

Many fire trucks and ambulances were visible in the distance and the 
smell of smoke grew thicker with every step. Several police officers were 
stationed there to keep spectators back. I decided I wasn't turning back, that, 
if I were still ascended, I had nothing to lose anyway. 

On cue, not one but three large officers approached and ordered me to 
leave the premises, pointing to the cab I'd come from. 

"I have a sister diving at PaciTek," I explained. "She has a rare form of 
NCFOD and I need to be there when they get her out of the booth." 

The battle-ready law enforcement brigade claimed the EMTs were 
prepared for any crisis and maintained they'd arrest me unless I left 
immediately. I feigned defeat and strolled back toward the street, glancing at 
the spectators who'd gathered there. There was no quiet shock among them. 
No kindness between strangers sharing a tragedy. These were like the extras in 
some film: melodramatic and scripted, their emotion phony and exaggerated. 
They were illusions. 

Meanwhile, in the direction of the beaches the sky was perfectly clear. 
Anxiously I scanned the stars. A cheap, twinkling copy, I thought. The same 




as the stars of Earth. 

Except the brightest point of light had vanished. 

I reached the curb and ran. The next road was blocked, and the one 
after that. "I'm not giving up that easily!" I yelled through increasingly heavy 

The booth can tell my brain I'm tired, but if my body's not actually 
moving. . . the energy would just keep coming, right? 

The third intersection was open. I turned and didn't stop until I was 
again three blocks from the Reed Building, from a different direction. Though 
no blockade kept me away, the scene in the distance was even less inviting. I 
forced myself to continue, directly toward the building. The smoke and heat 
rapidly grew worse; my breathing was heavy but I didn't cough and I didn't 
faint from exhaustion. Each step confirmed something was wrong. I became 
only more determined to reach PaciTek, to expose the lie for what it was, no 
matter what it cost. 

A gust of wind threw a thick plume of ash on me, blotting out the little 
light I had. Though I didn't sense myself falling, I felt my head smack onto 
the concrete. Hard. 

I was lying flat on a bed. A shadow darkened my eyelids and I heard 
loud snapping. I grabbed the hand over my face and looked sternly at its 

Who should be there to greet me but Ethan Underhill. 

"Hey, man. Welcome back to the world of the liv — " 

I grabbed him by the shirt collar and jerked him toward me. "Enough 
with the games! Tell me what you people want!" 

He hesitated, confused. "Look, Brandon, I think the smoke's still 
messing with your head. It's me, Anim-e e e!" 

I shoved him back so hard he nearly lost his balance. I saw I was in a 

hospital recovery room. I couldn't decide whether I'd really been knocked off 
my feet, whether I'd lost consciousness or simply appeared in a different 

The room's large window revealed a night sky over the city. My SNDL 
said the time was a little after ten zeroes, still the middle of the night, but that 
didn't mean anything. A hacker could've made it say anything. I tried to din 
my parents again, sending the emergency flag, but I still got voicemail. It was 
all forgery. I was cut off from the outside. 

Ethan was talking to a doctor in the doorway. I remembered I had 
known an 'Anime' in middle school, nicknamed for the old Japanese animated 
stuff he was into; but after some big fight we had, I didn't remember liking 
him anymore. I wouldn't have even known what he looked like after ten 

The two walked into the room. "Mister Dauphin, you inhaled a lot of 
smoke but seem to have recovered nicely. There are some officers downstairs 
who'd like to know if you're up to answering a few questions." 

I looked over at Ethan, who was cheerily oblivious to the world. This 
kid I hadn't been friends with in forever suddenly wanted to catch up with me 
more than life itself, and I was being pushed into the role of tour guide. I 
didn't know who was pulling the strings or what the cockamamie plan was, 
but it seemed refusing my role in it wouldn't get me out any faster. 

"Actually, I feel like grabbing a bite with my old friend Ethan." 

We refused the doctor's escort and made a game of evading the cops as 
we left the hospital and got into his car. Ethan told me a fire started in PaciTek 
and charred most of the building; he didn't ask what I was doing running into 
the inferno, but did make a point of saying that nothing remained of the fifth 




and sixth floors. 

His shiny new Darkball 840Ci was the most expensive car I'd ever 
been in, especially considering all the options were installed: from the sensor 
enhanced heads-up display to the refrigerator in the center-console. Caught up 
as I was sitting in it, though, I knew it was just a DR toy. . . one anyone could 
cruise around in, but could never have for real. . . not without a spare hundred 
million dollars lying around. 

"So. . . how's life treated you, Ethan? What do you do for a living?" 

He hesitated. "Sales." 

Ethan didn't seem as if he were taking part in a grand conspiracy; 
rather, he was as odd as anything else around me. The Ethan Underhill I 
encountered seemed like one I could look up in some Idaho state database: 
never emerging from the data, expressing no true personality, merely 
executing an assignment - running a program. 

Whose program? To what end? 

"So, where should we go?" he asked. 

"I thought you were taking me somewhere." 

"C'mon, Brand. You're the local." 


The car stopped for a red signal. I leaned back and stared at my 
reflection in the passenger window. "Fine. New York. The only place I want to 
go is New York." 

"Sure, New York it is." 

I looked at him curiously, at the unflinchingly naive look on his face. 
"Seriously? You're gonna drive me to New York? Right now? That's not 
exactly a tour of LA, you know." 

"I know, but I want to hang out. I don't care." 

"You... You're gonna drive across the entire country to 'hang out'? 

Ethan, that doesn't make any sense!" 

Ethan seemed worried. "I was hoping we could... you know... talk 
about life. You know." 

"What about life?" 

"What it means, Brand. Who we are and where we're go — " 

"Stop!" I grabbed the steering wheel and pulled it toward me. 

"But the panel's green!" 

"There's no traffic panel, there's no car, and you are not Ethan 

He looked puzzled, but I didn't buy into it. 

"You're asking me about the meaning of life and you're driving around 
in a Darkball? You win the lottery or something?" 

"A car is a thing, how can a thing be the meaning of life? Please let me 

"No," I said. "We're gonna cut the games, stay right here, and you're 
gonna tell me exactly what's going on!" 

No answer came. He became like a statue. I didn't even see him 

"I swear to Mother Earth if you tell me 'it's been a pleasure try again,' 

"No. No." He glanced desperately at the steering wheel. "Can I just 
drive? Please?" 

"Why, Ethan? Were you only programmed to drive me around forever? 
Am I supposed to spend the rest of my life having some philosophical chat 
with you?" 

He continued staring at the steering wheel. 

"Okay, you want to drive me somewhere? Randy's apartment, then; or 
Jane's, or Eric's. I'll introduce you to one of my more recent friends, one I 




would know was real or fake in about ten seconds. Maybe we can go to my 
prosperity agent's house, or zip back to good 'ol Nampa and have dinner with 
my folks, I'll even show you the spot in the basement where I used to hide my 
plasmonic fireworks, the one there's not a shred of information posted online 
about. Does that sound good to you, Ethan?" 

Ethan raised his eyes but said nothing. 

"You can show me the park-level of the Reed Building," I continued, 
"there's all kinds of imagery and cameras and everything to tell you what that 
looks like, but did you know it's illegal to post images of ascension-sites?" I 
opened the passenger door and released the steering wheel. "Bye, Ethan." 


I stood on the concrete and leaned back in. "Why is the Ace of 
Diamonds more desired than the Two of Spades?" 

"Uh. The answer to that depends on the game." 


"Communism? Never heard of — " 

"Blackjack then!" 

He stared at the steering wheel. "The Ace is more flexible, the player 
can use it as a high or low card. The two is. . . just a low card." 

"Thanks." I turned around and took a step. 

"Please Brand!" 

"You know what I want." I didn't look back. 

When he didn't reply, I slammed the door. There was no door. I lost my 
balance and nearly fell. 

The rays of the rising sun revealed a barren city street with no cars or 
people. The wind died down and I heard nothing but my own breathing. 


An extremely loud noise ripped through the silence, an alarm that 

came from everywhere. I covered my ears to no avail. I couldn't discern what 
direction it came from and ran into the nearest building. Even in its deepest, 
insulated, rooms the noise didn't diminish at all. 

The noise stole my ability to concentrate, and I couldn't tell where I 
was running. On pure instinct I tried to get away from the pain, my only 
action an unthinking re-action. My only thoughts were of the noise. The noise 
was consuming me and I had no idea how to escape it. I had become too 
absorbed in the alarm to even notice the wind picking up around me, trying to 
get my attention. 

An intense gust finally knocked me off my feet, snapping me back into 
reality, calling my focus to something beyond the noise. 

I stopped my search and tried to focus, burning to know what I was 
missing. I had to shout even in my own thoughts. 


At last. It stopped. 

I was at the same intersection where I'd started, and I was still alone. 
Everyone was gone, yet the despair didn't seem so strange to me anymore. 
But I knew the alarm had stopped, its power over me taken away, and in its 
absence I sensed a need, a feeling as plain as hunger. I looked at the rising sun 
and wondered what I was supposed to do. 

What am I supposed to find? 

The thought surprised me. I looked in every direction, for anything 
obvious, or anything out of place. 

I need a path. 

I cleared my mind until the only thing I perceived was the wind. The 
wind was blowing east, down the street to my right. I opened my eyes and 
took a deep breath. 

It can't be that simple. 




At times it was a gust, and other times the breeze was barely there at 
all. I began to doubt it meant anything, but the wind continued east and 
therefore I continued east, through countless blocks that seemed so identical 
to one another I wasn't sure I was moving at all. 

"You look hungry." 

I froze. The voice had come from behind. It was a kind voice, the voice 
of a real person. I turned and immediately recognized the sandcastle builder. 
The child was holding a door open. 

"Come on in. Breakfast is on me." 

Chapter Four: Closed Window, Open Door 

What is the meaning of life? 

The question is as philosophical as they come, not one prized 
by those who stumble through their lives expecting no better from 
tomorrow. Our ancestors looked to powerful deities and myths for 
meaning; many others pledged their beliefs to things scientific and 
observable through the senses. Their meaning came from the control 
they'd claimed: the magic pill that would make it rain on the fields or 
prevent an earthquake. The theory is paraded as fact until nature 
wipes it out, stranding the faithful until another easy answer can be 
rushed into circulation. 

The meaning of life, I believed, was to be a good person. I knew 
things would work themselves out and life would go on after me. Even 
as I grew up and threw the question away, some tried to tell me I'd 
been created, while others tried to tell me I'd congealed in primordial 
soup, and still others wanted me to think aliens were watching me from 
cloaked satellites. I didn't care. I had more important things to do. 

Then an Al asked me the question, but why would some hacker 
go through so much trouble to ask something stupid? 

It was just part of their game, I told myself. I could only think of 
escape, even as I lost focus on what I wanted to escape to, and there 
was no magic pill for me, no illusion or piece of code could fix the man 
I was. Only when I stopped trying to find the easy answer did I see a 
better one had been there all along. 

I felt alone and so I became alone... until a hand guided me 
from the noise and gave me what I didn't know I needed, something I 
would find myself admiring. 





We walked into a spacious coffee house. A bar defined the center of the 
room and tables sprawled around it. On our right was a stage where jazz 
musicians were performing. The growing morning light came in through 
broad front windows, beautifully highlighting every subtle accent of gold and 
silver used in the interior's design. A barista bent down when she saw the boy 
and hugged him. 

"Hi, Raskob. Peace to you." 

"Hi, Sallie. More to you." 

A calm sense came over me, as if my worries were suddenly so small 
they'd lost all meaning, as if all along they held no more power than a tiny 
ant. There was an energy within the room that seemed to project from the 
child. The room itself welcomed him, and he the room. I could feel the energy 
purifying me in some way. It seemed tangible enough to reach out and touch. 

"Always happy to see a new face here. I'm Sallie." 

"Uh. . . Brandon." I tentatively shook the woman's hand. 

Sallie conducted herself with joy and confidence. Her uniform was 
neat and her movements were fluid, demonstrating professionalism even in 
mundane tasks, even in tasks where professionalism had long been forgotten. 
She seemed authentic in every way, like someone who enjoyed life. Everyone 
in the room loved her, and she loved everyone in the room, even a stranger 
like me. For all the complaining I'd done about customer service going to 
artificial intelligence, it seemed only then I found what service was really 
supposed to be. I always knew what I didn't want. I never considered what I 
did. I never even looked for a place to start. 

The thought of jealousy came to me, more as a memory of the emotion 
than anything I could apply. I asked myself why everyone else should be so 

happy in this miserable world, but the question flipped around to become: 
Why should I be so miserable in this happy world? Jealousy was somehow 
impossible in that place. They had nothing I couldn't simply ask for. 

Sallie led us to the best table in the room, in a front corner. The light of 
the window reflected from a surface of polished mahogany and utensils of 
pure crystal. The sky-blue chairs were as comfortable as lying on a pillow. I 
was startled to see a broadsword hung on the wall beside the window, certain 
such an object would be illegal in a real shop. Given DR's creative licenses, 
though, I decided it was a bold and unique decoration for a coffee house. 
"THE WAY" was etched on a plaque underneath the sword. 

Sallie ran down a short list of specials, treating the pitch for each item 
with the care someone might use serving the Prime Minister of Europe. The 
options overwhelmed me, all choices between lofty, rich things I had no 
experience with or right to even try. 

"Just an Amber Plus, please." 

"Regular coffee," Raskob said. "Standard brew." 

The boy didn't appear any older than eleven or twelve, though his 
behavior was closer to that of a wise old man. He conducted himself with a 
universal, durable leisure. The look in his eyes seemed soft and intense all at 
once, revealing a sense of value and peace that cut to my core. I welcomed the 
emotion, enough to know I wanted to know it better, but beyond that it 
seemed to run out of tune, and in some bizarre way that made me feel like / 
was the one out of tune with it. 

"I didn't know people could still buy un-amped coffee," I said. 

"There is no need to build on what is already found in nature." 

Sallie returned with our orders, much faster than I'd expected. I 
noticed a red band on her wrist, with a silver marking embedded in its fibers. 

"What brought you here, Brandon?" Raskob asked, sipping his coffee. 




"The wind," I replied, looking toward the windows. "I think." 

"It's amazing. The wind could level this city in a single blast, but it 
chooses to display itself as a gentle breeze." 

"The wind chosel" 

"The wind is even here in Dynamic Reality. It blows as surely as it 
does in the real world. Even the scent of coffee and the sound of music are 

"So then, we're not pretending this is real life?" I said, opening my 
slampak and witnessing its familiar startup sequence. 

Raskob shook his head slightly. "No. No pretending here." 

I saw a black and red object appear in the corner of my eye. The 
descender had returned to my wrist. 

"It's something built by man on top of real life... modeled after it. It's 
a more controllable version of it." 

"Yeah," I said, slowly returning my vision to him, "Dynamic Reality 
has given us many things." 

"And taken away more." 

I didn't respond. Raskob sat peacefully as I looked around the crowded 
room and tried to get some bearing on it. All who entered were greeted in a 
friendly manner. All who left seemed refreshed and energetic, driven to return 
to their own corner of reality and make life better within it. I saw many 
enjoying themselves on the very delicacies I'd rejected, many of which I 
couldn't even recognize, and seeming all the more appetizing for it. 

"I used to think it was ridiculous, you know, eating in DR." 

"Did something change your mind?" 

I looked at him shyly, trying to remain aware of my thoughts. 

"People 'eat' in DR," I said. "It's not even a social thing anymore or 
just a way to satisfy temptation without calories... people actually 'eat' as if 

they had to here. I — " 

I smiled. It seemed like a silly thing to admit, but I felt like I wanted to. 
Something about Raskob made me feel it was safe to talk about anything, not 
worrying what he would think. 

"I — I don't know... I never noticed before, but I guess I do it, too. I 
don't even always feel like it, it's just. . . habit, I guess." 

"Your trips used to be a few hours; but, over the years, you've spent 
more of your life here." 

"Yeah. I guess I washed out," I said, rubbing my finger on the table. 

"What do you really want, Brandon? Why are you here?" 

"I just followed the wind. There was this horrible noise but it went 

"You were lost and in turmoil, but you asked for help and got it." 

I looked up, staring at my slampak. "Is there something I need?" 

Raskob leaned forward and put his hand on mine. "You want to be 
strong and brave, but something is stuck in the way. You don't want to admit 
to yourself that you have needs you can't meet on your own. Brandon, though 
the details change from person to person, I want you to know that what you're 
going through is a road countless people have traveled. That's why you're 
here. Precious few see where that road leads to. . . they're the few who ask for 

"No!" I shouted, shoving my slampak off of the table. 

The streak of anger abandoned me as quickly as it came. I felt tears on 
my face and didn't know why they were there. I saw Raskob's hand was still 
calmly on mine. 

"Why do you care about me?" I asked, confused. 

"Because that's how the world is supposed to work." 

I saw Sallie three meters away, carefully cleaning the floor with a 




towel, as if she couldn't simply delete the spill. I could detect no trace of 
bitterness towards me for making the mess. Sallie seemed to enjoy even that 
task, not because it was a distraction from something worse, but because it 
allowed her to demonstrate her service to others. 

"There is a hatred you have buried deep within yourself. It calls itself 
by many names, even love, but it is not love. Love is what you once gave to 
those closest to you. Love is what you look back on as an unattainable alien 
thing. Now your hatred is failing, but hatred is all you know. Hatred will not 
allow you to forgive anyone." 

The intensity in his eyes was unmistakable. His every word struck a 
chord, but I had no response to them. 

"I tell you now, Brandon. You will need to choose between your love 
and your hate. You can't serve both. There are no exceptions or 

"But I'm not a hateful man," I thought aloud. "I don't know what 
you're talking about." 

"That you hate yourself is evidence that you do." 

I felt numb. A person did appear in my mind, a person I loved like a 
brother who had hurt me very deeply, who I'd remembered hurting me very 

No, I decided. It can't be him. He never even apologized. There's no 
way this kid can know about that black sheep, anyway. He's asking too much. 
It's not hate. It's just a break from talking. 

I brought myself to look away from him... to the floor, because 
everything in the store gave me the same feeling of pain, highlighting the hole 
I couldn't fill in my heart and the stubbornness I'd become far too aware of. 

"So. . . did, uh. . . Did you write this? Are you a programmer?" 

"It was created by a man I met in a park in Berlin twenty years ago," 

he said. "He had a gun hidden in his coat and was about to kill himself. He 
had gifts he wasn't aware of. I showed him another way." 

"Oh. . . Was that when he became a programmer?" 

"He adds so much beauty to his world and he gives me credit in all of 
it. Though, none of it compares to the work of my father." 

I looked up, trying to regain some courage. "So you're a programmer's 

He nodded. 

"And what did your dad build?" 

"Have you ever heard the phrase 'there's life in the machines'?" 

"I think so. . . Yeah." I smiled. "There are rumors saying there are some 
self-aware amai online; artificial intelligence with free will." 

"But how does free will come into being?" 

"I didn't think it happened at all." 

"It does." Raskob took a sip of coffee. "I remember when my father 
built a huge environment. He put everything he had into it and he loved it; he 
populated it with creatures who had free will. The programming was perfect. 
Its coding was simply called 'beautiful.'" 

"That's amazing." 

"But, though all the creatures were designed with the ability to expand 
outside of the construct, many instead became glued to the rules they had been 
born into. There was much rebellion; and the rebels led many astray, 
convincing others that my father didn't care about them, or even denying the 
existence of anything outside their universe. As powerful as the opposition 
was, though, some persevered and kept others strong. They did great things in 
the name of their creator, even sacrificing what they had there." 

"Well... why didn't your father just delete the rebels and punish the 
ones who turned away? Why didn't he just program them all to serve him?" 




"Because that would go against their free will and against my father's 
purposes. To force someone into devotion accomplishes nothing, but when 
they sacrifice it all willingly and lovingly it's truly remarkable. Even one true 
servant is worth more than any number of slaves." 

He paused but I had no response. 

"So his love was reciprocated and he saw to it that they would 
eventually be free of the rebels. He built a new environment for them where 
they could live in joy and adoration after their 'natural time' was up in the first 
world; but, to rescue them from the hands of the rebels. . ." 

Raskob stopped and his tone became grim. "The population reached a 
point where laws and divisions were necessary. My father put them in place, 
though it was his intention to do away with them at the right time. The rebels 
eagerly abused the laws for their own ends and the time came to free the 
people - his children - and set up a final victory; but satisfying the law once 
and for all required him to make a sacrifice himself. . . one that pained him." 

He stopped, and the room was silent. I was grieved seeing the pain on 
his face. It was a very personal pain, so much so I felt I caused it myself. 

"What did he give up?" I asked. 

I finally noticed Sallie standing by our table, crying as she and Raskob 
shared a somber glance at each other. She remembered the new slampak in her 
hand and placed it on the table in front of me, sniffing and raising the hand to 
wipe her face. "I just wanted to see if there was anything else I could do for 

"Thank you, Sallie," he replied. "We're fine." 

I noticed the increasing sunlight outside and remembered it was only 
an echo of morning in Standard Reality. 

"Something new is happening in the world, Brandon. Imagine you're 
trapped in a speeding car being driven by a woman who's looking for 

someone. She is among the lost, trapped between two worlds. The road will 
be difficult ahead, but she means you no harm and, if you trust me to protect 
you, you'll both get where you need to go." 

I looked at him. "A woman?" 

"The one who has captured you." 

My gaze returned to the floor. Fear grew inside of me. 

What woman? Did he just say she "captured" me? What can I do? 
How do I get back? How — 

I felt Raskob 's hand on mine again. The fear evaporated and was 
replaced by a measure of joy. I looked at him like he was a savior, as if he 
were the only one who could reach down and pull me from the cliff. 

"Does that make you the good guy?" I asked in anticipation. 

"Why do you call me good?" 

I felt confused at his response. 

"What is good?" he continued. "What is evil? On what basis can a man 
judge such a matter? If the one who considers such things can neither liberate 
nor condemn another, how much less can the one who does not consider such 

"I'm sorry," I said, meaning it, "I don't understand what you're trying 
to say." 

"That's because you hear my words and nothing else, Brandon. Many 
can speak words, and many do speak words, in my name, to those who do not 
know me; but I tell you now that your eyes and ears can be opened, and when 
you find understanding you will know that it was a gift and that the only 
power you had was to accept or decline it. Know that the gift is the only thing 
that can save both you and your captor." 

"Save my captor? Why would I — " 

"I have given you rest. She isn't aware of where you are now, but you 




must return, because no one can find what they need if there is no one to 
guide them." 

I tensed. "But can't you just send me home?" 

He set his hand on the table and a glass of clear water materialized 
before it. He gave the water to me. "The workers need to be prepared for the 
road ahead. Blessed are those who persevere." 

I examined the glass. "But it's just water." 

He nodded. "I promise you that it's all you need." 

I realized I was thirsty. I considered the drinks in front of me: the 
familiar Amber Plus and the unimpressive water. 

Free will, eh? 

I slid the water toward me and picked it up, observing its clarity and 
the way sunlight reflected off its surface. It tasted sweeter than honey in my 
mouth and I drank it faster, as if the glass would never run empty. I became 
energized, feeling incredible; then, something occurred to me. A dull pain 
immediately spread over my body. I nearly choked. 

"Twenty years?" 

A horn blasted behind me. I spun around and a rushing pedestrian 
knocked into me. The glass slipped from my hands and shattered on the 

"Brandon, please. They're getting mad!" 

I was by Ethan's Darkball again. Rush hour was in full swing and cars 
were cutting around him. I tried to remember where I just was and what I'd 
dropped. There was nothing on the concrete. I ached everywhere and my 
senses were overwhelmed, as if I'd stepped from an ascension booth right into 
the middle of a sledg-ek dance skein. The sunlight hurt. The noise hurt. I 
instinctively tried to fight it all and was rewarded with a dizzy sensation. 

After only a few seconds, the light and noise faded and I wasn't able to 

think. Words and characters filled my vision: 

DAUPHIN BRANDON SINDEN: UPTIME 18 02 14: BP 195/101 HR 155: 

h5NR9tgEesTBldoLt8FL7geA46AhusrsdlFNthreomODtpmDshTI9nhHh 1 ES 
heegouVngoiiayDHthetroNlorcll5Ea — 

The stream suddenly broke off and the faded city returned. The 
Darkball was gone again, but the street appeared normal. I stumbled onto the 
sidewalk and looked for a bench to sit on. 

Ethan was driving me, then I got mad and tried to leave. I was alone. 
There was a noise. Then I saw. . . Then I — My descender! 

My hand was promptly on my wrist, but there was no descender. 

I screamed out a curse and nearly broke down on the sidewalk again, 
but I pushed the anger away and felt something inside me respond. I 
remembered walking east, following something, finding something - 

Slowly, I began in the direction I had gone before, recalling something 
about wind, annoyed at how it seemed to be affected by each passing car and 
opened shop door. 

I just went in one direction, unsure of what I'd find. 

No people blocked my path. No traffic panel - no traffic at all - made 
me wait. No holograms, incoming dins, or distractions of any kind detained 




me. Someone was clearly watching me and rolling out the red carpet for my 
every step. I just wished I knew whether it was the good guy or the bad. 

The memories of the coffee house slowly returned. I wanted to find 
Raskob again. My mind filled with questions I was shocked hadn't come 
earlier. Block after block and I couldn't recognize anything. I became angry at 
Raskob, angry at him for playing games with me and not just letting me go 

I reached what had to be the hundredth intersection and stopped, 
seeing nothing that resembled the coffee house. Parked down a cross-street, 
though, I spotted something that had become very familiar to me over the last 
several hours. 

"Thank you for riding Anaheim Lightning Bolt," the amai said as I got 
into the back seat of the metrocab. "Where can I take you this morning, 

"There's a coffee place on that road. Tell me where it is." 

"Yes, Mister Dauphin. There is a KDN Express, a Slammers, two Wel- 
Perks, and four public DOFI Centers within your search criteria." 

"No," I replied. "It's not a government or conglomerate-run store, it 
was small and privately-owned. It was filled with people, so it has to be 
popular enough to come up somewhere." 

"I'm sorry, Brandon. I found three privately-owned coffee shops 
within fifty kilometers, but none of them are on that road." 

I leaned back in the seat and took even breaths, playing back over 
everything in my mind. 

"Please state your destination, Mister Dauphin. I can guide you 
through the customer reviews of local coffee shops and help you choose the 
best one." 

The amai spoke in the usual overly- friendly way, never looking away 

from the street before her, never having to look anywhere because the cab's 
sensors did the driving. I noted the reflection of her eyes in the rear-view 
mirror. Even for a robot, they just didn't seem quite right. 

"We're staying right here. I want to know who's behind this." 

"I'm sorry, Brandon. I don't understand the question." 

"How do I descend? How do I return to Standard Reality?" 

"This is Standard Reality, Mister Dauphin." 

I rubbed my forehead and took a moment to think. To clear my head. I 
was sweating again, which wasn't normal for a vanitar... not unless a game 
called for it. But I knew I was still ascended. I knew I needed to find a way 
out. I leaned forward and summoned every bit of knowledge I had about 

"Tell me your system information." I commanded the amai. 

"Yes, Mister Dauphin," she replied gleefully. "I have been generated 
by a Slidewire-certified UY-type amai script as 'Jennifer,' instance five, 
default female classification; my program is registered to Reeeee — the 
California State Department of Public Transport under the Business, 
Transportation and Housing Agency, license number one-five-nine — " 

"Errors," I commanded. "Are there errors in your program?" 

"Yes, Brandon. Error code five-three-five-zero has been set on this unit." 

She was silent. 

"What's a five-three-five-zero?" 

"I'm sorry, Mister Dauphin. That is not a valid error code. Please state 
your destination." 


"You just said your program set an error code!" I grabbed the seat and 
leaned further up. "Five-three-five — " 

A shock of realization washed over me. I fell back. 




"No errors have been reported on this unit." 

It was the exact same synthetic voice I'd heard a million times before, 
but, in that moment, the slightest malicious tone seemed to be buried within it, 
projected by my mind onto my senses. 

"Why?" I asked absently, looking back at the rear-view mirror, trying 
to assess what was controlling the amai. Everything around me seemed 
infected suddenly - dirty and able to harm me. You're infected by a virus, I 
thought, as if pointing it out to the amai would change anything, as if someone 
of my skill could ever hope to escape a. . . 

I'm going to die, aren't I? I really can't get out. 

"I'm sorry, Brandon. I do not have that information." 

There's no information here, I thought frantically. They're in control of 
all of it. I need to go somewhere new, a place where there might be too much 
for them to change all at once. It's my only hope, a slim chance to find a way 
out before they can block it off. 

"There are no limits to where you can go," the amai said. 

I took a deep breath, and struggled to restrain the fear that wanted to 
burst out. 

"Libraries," I said. "I wanna go to the Central Library, that big one in LA." 

I spent the cab ride shutting myself off from my surroundings, putting 
my thoughts in order. What if a malvirai infected my booth, I thought; that's 
why its controls don't work, but then shouldn't I be dead by now? Obviously, 
it's a hacker pulling the strings, but who? What could they possibly want from 

I stepped out and the cab left. I felt like a soldier who suddenly 
realized he was deep within enemy territory, alone, and being watched. 

I passed through empty security posts and into the crowded library. 
Another barrier conveniently removed for me. When a passing guard didn't 
seem to notice me, I brought myself to follow him and tap him on the 
shoulder. My finger went through him as if I were a ghost. 

I put my hand on a nearby table. It felt solid. I called to one of the 
people sitting a few meters away. 

"Excuse me." 

The man didn't respond. My hand passed through the book he held, but 
not the ones on the bookshelves. I took one off only to find the same book still 
on the shelf. I opened the one in my hands and flipped its pages as quickly as I 
could, watching for the split-second the words rendered onto them. I dropped 
it and grabbed a second book, opening it immediately, opening it in the 
middle. I saw the beginning of the first chapter. 

They're slowing down, I thought. They're messing up. Maybe I was 
right. Maybe I can give them more data than they can handle at once. Malvirai 
or no. 

A second guard approached from a distance, as oblivious to my 
presence as the first. I felt an ache and the light around me started to shimmer. 
The guard stopped to look at something, standing in my aisle's narrow 
entrance. I watched carefully and realized his image was becoming blurry. He 
turned and took another step towards me, vanishing as he entered the aisle... 
no longer in the view of a camera. 

"Welcome to Los Angeles Public Library, Mister Dauphin. What can I 
help you find?" 

There was some kind of glowing effect around the librarian amai. It 
was spreading to every object in the room. 

"Your books are malfunctioning." 

"Please state your search parameters." 




"Fine," I said. "I need a book or something about Dynamic Reality. I 
need to know how to descend without a descender." 

"Science fiction. We also have some horror stories like that. I will take 
you there." 

"No. If it happened in — " 

Something moved on the hologram's ID badge. Random symbols and 
markings filled the area where a name would normally be. A fluttering noise 
emerged from the distance. The aching grew worse and the noise became 
louder. The markings on her badge shifted again, and its entire surface was 
filled with the random symbols. The light shimmered more strongly and the 
air became different, charged. I saw every object in the room flicker into 
oblivion and jump back into existence. Now all the books were solid. Now all 
the words were really on the pages. 

The books all suddenly switched positions. I dropped the one in my 
hands and stepped away from it. It wasn't the same book I'd taken from the 

"Listen, I just want to leave! This doesn't happen in real life!" 

"What's real and what isn't is in the eye of the beholder, Mister 

The air became heavier again, some intense static charge being drawn 
into it. The amai's ID badge became a blur of activity. The books shifted again 
and I heard the pages rustling in the shelves, becoming louder, as if they had 
begun jumping individually between the books. 

They took the real library and made it into a DR construct. . . or at least 
they're trying to! I was right... there's too much data here! The illusion is 
breaking down and I have to act now, or I might miss this chance! 

I grabbed the librarian by the shoulders. "I want to descend, or I want 
you to tell me how to descend!" 

She didn't respond. She didn't move. 

"Command... uh... list your functions! Establish some connection to 
the outside world! Now!" 

"The reqqqqquesssssst-t-ted fuuunct-function has been been dissss- 
disabled by the admin-administrrrrrrator, pl-pl-please. . ," 

Energy poured into the air at an incredible rate. I remembered how the 
Korea simulation ended and sprinted back into the lobby, which had become a 
complete visual blur. I was knocked off my feet and my entire body tingled, as 
if the blood were being drained from me, as if muscle commands weren't 
getting from my brain to my vanitar. I witnessed whiteboards, terminal 
displays and aire panels, the millions of books, all the matter within the 
building, jumping: shifting positions instantly, faster and faster, in some way 
that appeared like dancing. 

"Request for information." 

The same librarian appeared in front of me, looking at me with dead 
eyes, dead eyes that seemed as unnaturally energized as everything else in the 
room. . . packing the charge of a bolt of lightning. 

"Request for new information." 

With each word, her voice became more monotone. She barely moved. 
I struggled to breathe and lift myself from the ground, to overcome the 
increasing gravity and the hesitation of my simulated nervous system. 

"New — information?" I managed to reply, "Stay — away — from — 

"Stay-away-from-trees," she repeated. 

I looked at her with a mixture of horror and confusion. The air in the 
room crackled and vibrated, becoming so charged with energy it seemed it 
could spontaneously combust. The last of the people in the room, real or not, 
vanished. The random markings had spread to every surface in the library. The 
amai's lips no longer moved normally and her words began running together, 




the most basic illusions being compromised as if the overflowing energy were 
being sucked out and channeled elsewhere. 

problems-of-your-life-will-break-away. Leo-for-December-second-Be-wary- 
of-vegetation-but-use-flowers-generously-this-week. Taurus-for-October- 

trees-trees-trees-trees-trees-trees-trees. . ." 

I broke through the translucex door and bolted out onto the street. 
Streaking rainwater felt like tiny knives slicing through my body, and the 
impossible speed of it created a high-pitched whooshing noise that shrieked 
from all directions. I fought intense pain and blindly ran down what I judged 
to be the sidewalk, running into people who weren't there and deep puddles 
that didn't splash. I stopped when it felt like I was under something - a 
canopy. I could barely open my eyes to see the waterfall surrounding me. 
None of it seemed survivable, though the canopy above my head didn't 
collapse, the paint wasn't scraped off the walls, and the normal street drains 
somehow kept up. 

All in the same instant, the noise calmed and the air's energy faded. I 
peeked through my fingers to find a normal rainstorm on a normal street, as if 
the motion of the world had simply slowed to its normal pace. I looked to the 
sky and saw daylight had returned. Though now, only a few hours after 
sunrise, the sun was already far in the West. 

"Raskob! You said you had my back, man! Help me out!" 
The night came quickly. I stood under an overpass as the rain 
continued. The effect of the miserable water Raskob gave me finally begun to 
subside and I could think straight again. I wanted answers. I wanted freedom. 
The boy said to trust him, but he wasn't helping me at all. 

Every minute or so, a car would pass. I wondered if they were echoes 



of real cars, like the people in the library, or complete fabrications. 

The wall behind me is solid. Perhaps they are, too, I thought. 

In the distance, I heard the gentle purr of an HH-cell engine, perhaps 
from a LeGrande or a Toyota. When I saw the headlights I swallowed 
nervously. My breaths were shallow and I was trembling. I knew I didn't want 
to. It seemed wrong. It seemed right. It seemed like my only option. 

Desperate times, as they say. 

The rain drenched my face, my eyes were shut tight and my breath 
held. I heard the loud squeal of tires and felt a tingly wind. The sound of the 
rain cut off into silence. 

I opened my eyes, standing unharmed in the middle of the road. The 
car had dematerialized. The rain had stopped. The city was quiet, except for 
the steps of a woman walking in the road. She stopped three meters from me, 
observing me. I saw her face and her descender. I remembered where I had 
seen her before. 

Blackjack table. 

Modern clothing had replaced the Soviet uniform and, without the cap 
covering it, hair that appeared white was reflecting the streetlights above with 
a faint silver luminance. 

"Who are you?" 

"There is only one thing you need to know, Mister Dauphin." 

Her words were spoken in neither love nor hate. Her eyes were a 
puzzle. Her face revealed no emotion. Even as her next words shook to my 
core, that which was behind them seemed very alien. Hers was the impersonal 
statement of a fact, of things decided before I'd even stepped into the 
ascension booth. 

"If you don't start cooperating, I'll kill you." 

Chapter Five: Highest Stakes 



The energy of the fire continued to build; it was all she knew to do. 

Mine would become like so many other stories: one of good 
versus evil, of losing an old identity and gaining a new one, of life. It 
wasn't a story I'd wanted, and it wasn't a story I could depart from or 
just let play out around me. It was unyielding and it was personal. 

The stage was set, and I had met the one assigned to be my 

Mine would become like trillions of stories that appear on the 
grand stage of Dynamic Reality, but not as an illusion... not a matter of 
simulated reality, but of all reality, not of the man I said I was, but of the 
man I truly was, of him who survives when the liar is gone... when the 
impostor known as Brandon Dauphin gets burned away in the light of 
the day. 

Even as the road ahead became darker, the light which had 
been growing inside of me was being amplified, harnessed by another 
for her own ends, analyzed like a piece of software she couldn't 

Mine would become like so many other stories: I would have a 
choice to make and a life to save. I would find myself as the humble 
hero against the powerful foe, needing new answers to solve old 
problems. Like so many, though, I would also need a friend to lean on 
and a home to return to... things the impostor knew nothing of. 

This story is about what lies beyond his horizon, beyond the 
walls he used to protect himself. This story is about losing the 
impostor. This story is about losing my limits. 

The limits consumed in the growing fire. 

A warm light materialized above my head. The rain stopped hitting 
me and I realized it had been pouring again. 

"Silly man, do something!" 

I blinked. The woman with the descender was gone again. 

"Hey, do you hear me silly man? Don't stand in the road when Tersen s 
Game and Casino is offering no-limit Texas Hold 'Em with double swipe- 
and-win points! We really want to see you there!" 

I turned and saw a short woman standing next to me, a sales-amai. I 
couldn't even register her as an annoyance. I could only think of the feeling of 
presence, of the woman pulling the strings of the world, the last world I may 
ever see. 

Did she really say she would kill me? What kind of psycho did I run 
into? What did she mean by "cooperate"? 

Someone grabbed my arm and began pulling on it. 

"C'mon Brandon, don't stand in the road! Do something!" 

I jerked my arm from her grip and stepped away. The pavement of the 
street began to change, all the things around me becoming brighter. 
Something began to occupy the air, not so much a scent, but a familiar 
sweetness. I watched the mounts of a hanging street sign vanish, so it began to 
float like a magical object. The rain became a drizzle and sparkled like crystal. 
I gasped, knowing the real city of Los Angeles was transforming around me 
into — 

"If Dynamic Reality is what you want, then Dynamic Reality is what 
you get!" 

I turned to the amai. "I don't want to die." 

"Die?" She repeated, too gleefully. 




"Yeah, die! End of life! Termination! Going away and never coming back!" 

A tear slid down my cheek. The dumb amai held no emotion at all. 
There was no body language, tears, voice tone, or anything at all to indicate 
she was a real, thinking being... that she could actually consider a day when 
someone would unplug her projector and melt it down for recycling. 

"You'll 'die' over our specials, Mister Dauphin! Flaming hot wings for 
only three thirty-nine! C'mon!" She tried to pull me toward the nearby club. 

Again, I jerked my arm from her grip, knowing Dynamic Reality was 
gripping me tighter, as it had so many times before. 

"C'mon, Brandon! You don't want to stand in the road! You don't like 
doing nothing]" 

I didn't respond. 

"You like parties and friends and hot bands like Aiming for Wednesday] 
They're gonna perform tonight and you gotta be there!" 

"I want to see that woman," I replied, "the one I was just with." 

"I'm sorry, Mister Dauphin, I can't help you with that, but I can help 
you find the luckiest slot machine and give you tips to improve your odds!" 

I looked toward the street and raised my voice. "I'm asking nicely!" 

"We have lots of single women inside, or if you like me it's easy to — " 


I faced her with angry, offended eyes. 

"But if you just come inside — " 

"I — want — to — see — that — wo — man," I replied. "I don't know 
what any of this is about, but I'm not doing anything until I get an 

"If there is a problem," the amai stated, without loss to her happy tone, 
"just tell me and it'll be fixed!" 

"What kind of 'problem'?" 

"I don't know, Brandon... Your environment was a flawless recreation 
of Los Angeles. Adjustments are merely being made to make you 'active! '" 

"I don't want to be 'active!' I want to go back to Standard — the real 

"Why don't you just pretend? Everybody pretends! It's fun!" 

The little strength I had fled from me and I felt petrified. It was a 
reaction from deep within, a conflict I knew nothing about. 

Everybody pretends. 

The thought tore at my insides. The ache had returned. 

It's fun. 

It had been spoken as a fact. People took it as a fact. I knew I had been 
living by the code of that statement. It had been fun, I thought. Once. 

"The woman!" I shouted. "Stop hiding behind illusions and — " I had to 
stop and breathe. "And face me!" 

"Why do something unpleasant? C'mon, you can play any game 
you want!" 

Why is every word coming from their mouths so ridiculous? Why are 
they all programmed to lie all the time? Why shouldn't I want to find the 
meaning of this? Why shouldn't I want to go through the pain if it means my 
freedom in the end? 

The rain curtain dissolved and I heard the sound of a car behind me. I 
stood frozen as the amai quietly walked past me. 

"If that is the only course of action you will take," she said in a flatter 
tone, "then that too is opened to you." 

I slowly turned and saw her holding the open door of a black 
limousine. The music from the bar behind me became louder. I could hear 
friendly voices shouting my name and inviting me into my captor's more 
gentle, intended, method; but the door ahead of me held answers, and I knew 




in my heart the difficult path was the one I had to follow, even as everything 
else directed me away. Even the amai's perky voice had become plain and 

"Now choose." 

I sat uneasily in the back of the limo, the only company being several 
monitors set to various cameras and broadcast networks. The door closed and 
the hologram vanished. The car started moving. 

"Hey! Where are we — " 

The woman appeared in the seat across from me, staring silently into 
me with hard green eyes, sitting unnaturally straight and giving off the body 
language of a statue. 

"What do you require?" 

"I, uh. . ." I blinked and remembered to breathe. 

"Is aimless wandering all you do, Mister Dauphin?" 

"Yeah. Uh. . ." I took another breath and summoned my energy, finding 
anger. "Yeah! When I can't reach my family or friends! When I've been 
kidnapped and held in DR! Yeah, I guess so!" 

A glass of wine appeared in my hand. 

"A '62 Merlot. Good year. Please tell me what I can do to make up for 
your trouble." 

I let the glass fall. "Let me go and maybe I won't press charges!" 

The woman stared in silence again. From her sea of apparent 
indifference, something rose up, barely detectable, hinting at frustration. 
Though the tone of her words remained flat, the pauses between them became 
shorter. "I've tried to follow, fool, guide, intimidate then impress you. What 
other kind of persuasion do I need to give?" 

"Persuasion for what?" 

She hesitated. "Call it research, for which you are an involuntary 

I held out my hand in mock introduction. "I'm sorry, we still haven't 
been properly introduced. I'm Brandon and y — " 

"Brandon Sinden Dauphin of Los Angeles, California; born to Paul and 
Rachel Dauphin in Nampa, Idaho on the date September 12, 2154, as the 
youngest of two sons and one daughter. Registered to move to Los Angeles 
County on date September 15, 2177. Present address: 3400AHe — " 

"How did you learn so much about me? I've never even seen you 

"That isn't relevant." 

"You were the one who caused those problems, right? Who caused my 
Korea simulation to blow itself up? Who caused... whatever that was at the... 
at the library?" 

I was sweating again. The conversation... the very presence of this 
woman was making me more and more tense. I found I couldn't read her at 
all, except for some vague intuition, except for some vague notion of anger. 
Of hatred. 

Who am I up against? Have I done something to her? Is she unstable? 
Why is she so interested in me? Why won't she just come out and say it? 

"Your Korea program did what it was designed to," she stated, "though 
I did not understand its appeal." 

"And when I got dizzy and almost descended?" I asked, remembering 
someone had accessed my ascension booth earlier. "Was that you, too?" 

"The construct suffered a break in consistency and your readings 
indicated a medical emergency. You were not experiencing one, and you are 
okay now." 




"So after this concern for my life, you threaten to kill me?" 

"In exchange for your cooperation, I will consider letting you live." 

"You talk about death so casually," I said. "I have a..." 

Family? Friends? Fiancee? What do I have? 

I groaned loudly to chase away the tears, wondering if I could even 
make a case to save my life, or if anyone would listen to it. 

"I don't want to die," I said powerlessly 

"Is it so much of an offense?" she replied. "Death is part of life, 
thousands have died in the moment we've been talking; thousands more have 
been born to replace them. You are only one life." 

"My life means something to me. Couldn't you have picked someone 

"And if I had, wouldn't that person ask the same question?" 

"I still don't know who I'm talking to," I said, less forcefully than I 
meant to. 

"All that you need to know is that I'm not patient." 

A new video monitor materialized between us. It was filled with 
images of action: happy people doing productive things, joyful jingles, 
optimistic sales pitches, and more of what surrounded me on a daily basis. All 
carried promises of improving the quality of life. All were carefully 
constructed windows into truth and worlds of happiness. 

"They're all lies, aren't they?" she said, with what almost seemed like 

"They're commercials," I replied. "That's a music video... That's a 
talent show. . . Of course it's all made up, lady! Everyone knows that!" 

"Yes... Perhaps everyone does," she said, seeming to look for 
something in the images. "But I have speculated that there is an inspiration 
within them, some kind of validity. I believe that there are things about life 

that aren't captured in media such as this. I want to know of them." She 
looked directly at me. "I want you to tell me the meaning of — " 

"The meaning of life?" I suggested, using Ethan's words. 


I looked out the window at the nighttime suburban landscape. "This is 
a joke. I think Dynamic Reality is getting to your head. Descend and get a 
self-help book, lady. I can't help you. I won't help you." 

The woman punched a hole into the counter. "I've processed those 
books, they say nothing!" The city outside and the monitors vanished. The 
electric charge returned to the air and the limo began to vibrate. The sound of 
the engine intensified. We were speeding up. 

"Brandon Dauphin, do you want to live?" The woman asked evenly, 
but with brief pauses between the words. 

A blue light, sky blue, began filtering in through the windows, filling 
the cabin. The limo shook violently and gravity pulled harder on my body. 

"Answer me!" she said loudly. "Do — you — want — to — " 

"Yes! Yes! I want to live!" I shouted, clenching my eyes. 

"Prove it." 

In a heartbeat, the cabin closed in around me. I opened my eyes and 
saw I was in the cockpit of an F-86. I hurriedly felt around my flight suit for 
my descender, but it was still missing. A silver object in the sky caught my 
eye. I looked up with only an instant to grab the stick and go into a hard dive, 
cursing as I missed the braking enemy fighter by centimeters. The MiG dove 
and accelerated to get on my tail. I continued diving and threw the throttle 
forward as far as it would go. 

I bought only a few seconds, the silver jet behind me was closing - 
fast. Before I could react, she fired a round just outside my canopy. I leveled 
off around 12,000 feet and banked right in a high-G turn, knowing I was 




going to lose if I didn't get behind her. Though I'd done the move in games 
before, the controls weren't responding properly, and now the MiG was right 
up on my tail, close enough for my jetwash to scorch her nose. I wanted to 
make her pay for her flying carelessness, but the MiG had already fallen back 
by the time I had my plane under control. 

"Lady, you're a real piece of — " Another warning shot. 

I threw the throttle forward again. 

Think, Brandon! What I should do now? A Sabre should outrun a MiG 
at low altitude, or the MiG would lose control trying to keep up... but what 
weaknesses can I count on? I don't know anything about her and she knows 
everything about me! 

As I anticipated, her jet was accelerating back into firing range. 
Bugging-out wasn't an option. I knew I needed a plan fast or I'd lose a lot 
more than simulated aerial combat. 

I applied the speed brakes, to give her a taste of her own medicine. She 
was fast enough to weave but ended up at my two o'clock. Immediately I 
began a pulling maneuver, turning my nose toward hers, and fired - missed. 
As I passed it on the horizontal plane, the MiG shed enough speed to get on 
my four o'clock and attempt the same move against me. Cursing again, I spun 
to bank hard-left before she could get her shot. 

"Command... object add: Sidewinders." Though the missiles had come 
a little later than the Korean War, it wouldn't have been the first time I fudged 
history a little. 

The control system didn't respond, not even for a busy message. Even 
back in my real body, I could sense my pulse racing. Again and again, we 
spun and crossed each other in a scissors pattern, evading each other just 
enough so neither could get a shot. In a normal fight with another ascender, I 
might have shot the MiG down easily, but my opponents' sloppy maneuvers 

were becoming more graceful, as if she were going from freshmeat to alpha 
faster than anyone I'd ever seen. The two of us were barely maintaining 
enough speed to stay in the air, but she was somehow more successful, 
creeping behind me meter by meter, a little more with each pass. 

Finally, a single bullet nicked my right wing. I felt as if I were in some 
old Western, an outlaw shooting at my feet yelling "dance!" I was exhausted 
and out of ideas, only readying myself for the inevitable. The next round went 
through my cockpit windows. 

"Command. . . object local canopy: reset." 

The program didn't restore the windows. 

I flew level and futility picked up a little speed as the MiG gained 
altitude. I remembered Raskob and wondered if he was really on my side, or if 
he was just another false person the woman was using to confuse things, just a 
part of the cruel joke she was prepared to finish. I dared to look behind me. I 
saw the MiG's cockpit was empty. 

However she was controlling it, the MiG dived and opened fire. 37mm 
rounds tore mercilessly through my right aileron, the side of my fuselage, 
through fuel lines and the tail. The engine stalled and smoke seeped through 
the instrument panel. I began rolling uncontrollably. The trees were coming 
fast. I was crashing. 

I had never crashed, and I never really knew what panic felt like. 
Somehow, I forced myself to move, fumbling for the ejector seat lever. 

I don't want to die! I need help! Somebody HELP ME! 

My seat slid out from the rolling cockpit. I couldn't tell which way was 
up and clenched my eyes shut. Almost immediately, a strong light filtered 
through my eyelids. I could feel the heat of a fireball ahead of me. 




With only a few scrapes from the landing, I put as much ground 
between me and the crash as I could. Steep hills surrounded me and there 
wasn't much vegetation to use as cover. Every minute or so I heard voices in 
the distance, speaking ancient Korean or perhaps Chinese. I was still in the 
fight. I knew the woman could've just made the enemy soldiers materialize 
around me and been done with it, if not for her idea of letting me "prove" 

A well-weathered barn sat conspicuously in a field, surrounded by a 
few trees. I fought to open the large door, the only one I saw, enough for me to 
slip in. Usually such buildings held some kind of value to the game, including 
ladders to climb, hay to hide in, or large objects to duck behind; but, in a 
simulation tailored for aerial combat, I found a useless structure meant only to 
make the landscape below seem more realistic, or to serve as targets for bored 
players. The dirt below was perfectly flat and the roof above lacked 
crossbeams or supports of any kind. Light peeked in through walls 
programmed to look decrepit. The exterior seemed perfectly real, but the 
interior was completely empty. 

I closed the door and positioned myself against the wall. I heard voices 
again and searched for any weapon I had, finding a Ml 91 1 pistol. I turned the 
safety off and readied myself to shoot at the first thing I saw. 

The rotting wood of the door gave easily and two soldiers rushed in 
holding shotguns. The instant before they noticed me, I took aim and fired - 
no bullets. More soldiers came and surrounded me, yelling as if I had any clue 
what they were saying - the game's built-in translator wasn't responding. The 
largest of them hit me with the butt of his rifle. I held my hands up in 
surrender and they just laughed, the big one pointing the barrel at my head, 
yelling louder. The look of death was in his eyes and I couldn't bear it any 
more. I was exhausted and just wanted it to end. I closed my eyes and prayed, 

as I supposed most people would under such mortal stress. I could hear them 
all taking aim, but no one fired. The noises stopped without warning. I heard 
only my own breathing. 

Am I dead? 

I opened my eyes, slowly. The soldiers were gone. At the other end of 
the rifle I found the woman with silvery hair, her unblinking eyes boring into 
my soul, longing to see me ripped apart. The weapon in her hands trembled, 
though. I saw the one without emotion fight herself and conceal the struggle. 
Somehow, it was revealed to me her struggle was against anger. 

She was angry at me. 

A wave of nausea washed over me. I was trembling and couldn't see 
straight. I felt like vomiting. 

And everything became dark. 

What I saw next was like no place I'd seen before. I realized I was 
standing and that my eyes were open, staring into a black void. I lifted my 
head. The pain from the battle was gone. There was no sound. In the distance, 
a horizontal blue line wrapped around me, its faint light vibrating in a rapid, 
mesmerizing pulse. I lifted my arm and saw its skin was luminescent. I could 
see myself as if I were outside in daytime. Several meters in front of me stood 
the woman, facing to my left. She was holding her right hand in front of her 
face, moving its fingers as if she'd never seen such things before. 

I attempted a step forward. My foot landed firmly on a surface I 
couldn't see. I inhaled and tried to clear my head. The air was very thin and 
my sense of smell was gone: the sweet aura known in Dynamic Reality was 
not there, the blood and sweat theme from the war game was not there, even 
the subtle city musk of the real world was not there. Everything was just... 
blank. I sliced my hand through the air and felt no resistance, as if I were in 




outer space. I felt like a fish without water. I knew I never needed air in the 
simulations, but it was always included, always accommodating the familiar 
inhale-exhale cycle. The complete lack of it felt stranger than I would have 
ever imagined. 

"Are you recovered yet?" 

I blinked and looked toward the infinitely distant band of light. "Where 
are we?" 

She turned to analyze our surroundings. Her anger, what of it I'd been 
able to perceive, had gone. Her personality seemed naive and mechanical 

"I call them 'absences,'" she said. "They are addresses which are not 
in use. The connections and hardware are not abused by ascenders in 
constructs, they have not been written or overwritten onto by control software. 
It is... peaceful." 

"It's blank?" 

"There is the simulation of gravity, time, and spatial dimension 
necessary to facilitate your healing; but, by your standards, yes, it's blank." 

"And that blue light?" 

"A color?" She turned to me. "Without active software to obstruct it 
here, you may perceive the server's activity as some kind of ambience. Blue, 
as you said." 

There was silence again. She seemed to concentrate on something in 
the distance, perhaps the same light, perhaps a light she couldn't see the same 
way I could. 

"Will you at least tell me your name?" 

"No." She held her right hand and looked down at it, wiggling its 
fingers again. 

"Then tell me if you're a hacker." 

"I don't need to tell you anything." 

"Then how am I supposed to help you?" 

Her hand stopped. I realized the word I'd used surprised her. 

"Hacker," she said. "Yes. If it helps you, then consider me a 'hacker.'" 

She stared at me again, waiting for my response. Her gaze made me 
uncomfortable. I wondered how much she really knew, whether her gaze 
could really see all of my secrets. My lack of knowledge was more frightening 
than my lack of control. 

"Why shouldn't I know who you are? You know so much about me," I 
admitted. "It's not fair." 

"Life doesn't appear to be fair, so I am not concerned about such 

"Then why me? I'm a nobody. I'm no one special." 

"Your actions do not support your claim," she replied. "I suggest you 
modify your thinking or you may not be useful to me." 

"Useful howl" I nearly whispered. 

"I told you that my interest is research." She indicated the space 
around us. "This could be anything you want it to be. I could take you 
anywhere in this 'Dynamic Universe,' to any program, any server. The only 
condition is that I remain in control." 

"That's it? You want to drive me around like some metrocab 
hologram? Why? So you can shoot me out of the sky and point rifles at me? 
What kind of research are you doing, lady? Are you seeing how close you can 
get me to a heart atta — " 

As my voice rose, I sensed anger from her again. I made the impulsive 
mistake of allowing it to fuel my own, and the cycle quickly escalated within 
her. A gun, the same M1911 I'd had earlier, materialized in her hand and she 
pressed it against my forehead. I stared cross-eyed at the weapon and began to 
tremble again, a strange feeling spread across my skin as if I were sweating - 
in my real body. Still her face revealed no emotion. 

I saw her pull the trigger - Click. I let out a loud gasp. 

"No," she said. "I don't want your fear. It's unpleasant and 




counterproductive." She backed away a step and let the weapon fall to her 
side. "You've raised more questions in me than you've answered, Mister 

I couldn't take my eyes off the gun. 

"You react so strongly to the thing though it cannot work." She 
approached and handed me the gun. "It was not necessary to give this 
environment air. The gun requires oxygen to discharge." 

I stared at the gun in my hands. 

"As it needed bullets before," she added. 

I threw the gun into the blackness and it vanished. "You sabotaged the 
simulation! What was it you said? You wanted me to prove I wanted to live? 
You sabotaged the Sabre's controls!" 

"The game was fair. You failed." 

"I what?" 

"I was playing according to the rules of the game, a game with which 
you have experience. Yet, though you knew your existence was dependent on 
winning, I was still able to defeat you. Perhaps the existence of — " She 
hesitated. "If you were at a disadvantage, it did not come from me." 

"Fine! I lost! Then what am I doing here? Shouldn't I be dead?" 

"Again you contradict yourself. You said you didn't want to die and yet 
you would seem to welcome it." 

I shook my head and stared into the blackness below me, trying to 
figure out whether the woman wanted to kill me or spare me. "Then let's not 
go there," I said. "No more guns, please." 

"Then don't compare me to a metrocab hologram," she said, barely 
pausing between the words. 


I looked at her, knowing she'd meant it as seriously as everything else 
she said; but then something changed in her eyes. She broke eye contact as if 
she were aware. "My actions are inappropriate," she apologized. "You simply 

made a connection." 

More silence passed. I took a step toward her. 

"If you send me home I won't tell anyone about you, I promise." 

"It is too late for that," she replied. "I cannot accept the risk. When I 
have my answers, I will decide what to do with you." 

A new round of anger surged within me. I fought to hold it back, to not 
become like the caged animal I knew I was. "Okay, sure, fine... you're in 
control, obviously. Let's get this out of the way already. What questions am I 
so brilliant I can help you answer?" 

"I will get the answers by observing you: your behavior in different 
environments, your interaction with others. As before, some of this will be 
influenced by me and much of it will be handled by the constructs themselves; 
but the choice on where to go next is yours. You will choose what I am to 

"/ choose? I choose my home." 

"The data I have of your apartment is primarily blueprints and utility 
records. I cannot simulate the shifting arrangements of your possessions — " 

"No, No, No, No, No." I put my head in my hand. 

This has to be a dream, I thought. Think. . . When I first saw her, in the 
casino, what did she want then? 

"Your question at the blackjack table," I asked. "What was it?" 

"Why is one more desired than two?" 

"Right... High cards and low cards," I said, believing Ethan's answer 
really came from her. 

"I have found the answer to that question already, though many others 
have taken its place." 

"And. . . the answer was?" 

She turned to face the absence again. "The Aces and Twos are identical 
in nature. They are the same size. They are manufactured the same way. The 
printing of the reverse, the art pattern, does not change. The differences 




between them are imposed by the rules of various games. A meaningless 
variation causes the Aces to gain value over the other cards." 

I nodded, not really following. "Good." 

"You recognize that as good?" 

"It's just a card game. You're not supposed to be proverbial with them. 
You can't play cards if all the cards have the same value." 

"Just as the Cold War could not be played if all sides had the same 

"War wasn't - isn't a game. It's life and death. The Cold War was 
about two competing ideologies: communism and capitalism. They both 
wanted the whole world to be a certain way. We - Capitalist America - won. 
The whole world has been running on free economies for a hundred years 
thanks to us." 

"I noted this conflict in your game and explored the nature and 
application of communism. Subsequently, when you weren't responsive, I 
accessed a program more appropriate to capitalism. Each had severe defects." 


"You are collectively flawed as well." 

I stared confused at her. "What?" 

She didn't move or respond. 

"Are you — " 

"Blood," she suddenly said. "I will attempt a description using your 
blood to represent your money... Nations can be considered as organisms, 
Mister Dauphin, with the nation's money equating to the organism's blood. 
Command economies such as the Soviet Union did not allow their blood to 
flow naturally, but continually tried to pull it in around the heart. Logically, 
such an organism's growth would be stunted and its survival, fragile. Free 
economies such as the United States were ideologically different and less 
centralized, but suffered from similar issues; though one remained healthier, 
both organisms would be said to have diseases, even the same disease." 



"Well... Maybe blood can be the number of points. The rich always 
win. I don't know. . . Maybe capitalism is a stupid game, too." 

"I question the need for money altogether. Though, I believe there is 
more I must know before I can make a valid judgment." 

"Fine. We'll go call up a bank server and have their amai tell us all 
about no-collateral QH financing!" 

"I don't believe that would be productive." 

"Then what would be productive?" 

She paused a moment, motionless again, as if she were retreating so far 
into thought she lost contact with her vanitar. 

"As I was determining how I would observe capitalism," she said. "I 
noted that another type of system prevailed before the others." 

"Okay. Let's do that. Call it up or whatever you want." 

"The choice is yours, Mister Dauphin." 

The woman vanished. I looked again at the band of light in the 
distance, and wondered where I was. I saw the vibrations of the light were 
beautiful, shifting in subtle shades between indigo and deep violet. I thought 
of the thousands, perhaps millions of ascenders it represented. Under the 
entrancing effect, I was startled when I heard my captor's disembodied voice 
coming from the void. 

"Next question, Mister Dauphin. Will you be a good king or a wicked 

My vision blurred and I felt the essence of sweet DR air return. I 
blinked and saw people standing around a long dining table. At my side stood 
a portly, bearded man dressed like a medieval nobleman and carrying a staff. 
His voice boomed through the hall like thunder. 

"All hail King Dauphin!" 

Chapter Six: The Enemy Without 


Before democratic republics and socialist politics, the world was 
made up of tribes, kingdoms, and empires, where people looked to a 
single man with absolute power, a ruler for life - unless overthrown by 
others seeking his power. 

Over four hundred years a world made up entirely of kingdoms 
shed them all. Today the concept is foreign and barbaric, a relic and 
culture of another, less perfect time. 

Aren't today's leaders human, too, with their own triumphs and 
shortcomings? It's not uncommon for presidents to hand-pick their 
successors, or for prime ministers to go outside their laws to ensure re- 
election. What is the difference between them and the wicked kings? 
And what of the good kings? Those who brought genuine peace and 

Everywhere I see people who are kings over their own Dynamic 
Universe, reigning over the stories of today, enjoying them as modern 
phenomena while dismissing the cultures that brought them into being, 
judging them as fundamentally different without asking why. 

The idea of self-serving power hasn't gone away but adapted, 
picking up new labels along the way without truly changing. Leaders 
are still imperfect, bureaucracy and bad politics still win every election, 
and problems still don't become easy to solve. 

Are we individuals good or wicked in the tiny kingdoms of our 
own lives? How do we treat those below us or influence those above? 
As we all become kings and queens, we all become trapped within the 
necessary walls. We become weaker and waste more as we control 
more, until we lose control and lose everything we've built. 

But what can happen when the trend is reversed and the 
individual becomes a powerful servant? What power can a society gain 
when the judges surrender their masks and count themselves among 
the accused? Would we find ourselves good or wicked in the end? 

My judge stayed beneath her mask, but the same forces that 
scrutinized me were scrutinizing her, breaking through her veil, 
needing for it to be destroyed also. It was the same force that seeks to 
bring down all kings and queens, snatching away their feeble crowns 
to give them new power, power that doesn't need masks. 




I sat in a golden throne at the head of the very large, very nice wooden 
table. Light streamed in from windows by the ceiling and a dozen crystal 
chandeliers. At the far end of the room, a musical ensemble played a variety 
of exotic instruments. Purple curtains lined the room and patterns of gold and 
silver lined the floor. The dining hall was as much a feast for the eyes as its 
cuisine was for the stomach. The guests were finely dressed representatives of 
other kingdoms, kingdoms with unfamiliar names I was apparently aligned 
with in some war. 

All of them complimented me profusely on things I'd done in my 
kingdom, what I conquered, what I built, how we were going to win and so 
on. Though they were all game characters, I began to enjoy myself. If the 
archduke-of-whatever talked about something I didn't know, Sir Clarke 
Baldwin, the portly right-hand-man who'd introduced me, would fill in the 
details of my conquests in his very complimentary and enthusiastic tone. I 
saw the hacker sitting on a golden beam by the ceiling. I waved, wanting her 
to know I was watching her too. She pulled a hand from her silvery hair and 
waved back, seeming to imitate me. 

One of the men, the crown prince of the kingdom bordering mine on 
the north, approached me. Prince Kenneth was wearing a thin robe of scarlet 
silk and jewels were everywhere on him. His heavy robe reminded me of my 
own. The fabric was comfortable, but it was hot and heavy and made noise 
when I moved... very flashy but not very practical. I couldn't believe people 
wore all of it for a living. 

"If it pleases my king, Sir Clarke is having an inner room prepared for 
our planning. My father has many urgent instructions we must — " 

A loud crash cut him off and something flew by my head. People in the 

room panicked, some ducking under the table for cover. Without thought, I 
retrieved my nicked crown from the floor and put it back on my head. A large 
arrow stuck out of the wall beside me. 

Only a moment later, the palace guard introduced me to an angry- 
looking man dressed as a ranger. Sir Clarke, whose every thought quickly 
found words, informed me he was a mercenary known to work for the royal 
family we were warring against. The crowd: banquet-goers, palace staff, and 
many distinguished others, cried for blood and vengeance. 

I thought of the creative sentences I could pronounce, knowing the 
soldiers would carry out any of them without question. Before making a 
pronouncement, though, I remembered the one in the room who didn't fall 
under my command. I laughed aloud, realizing how caught up in the game I 
had become. . . for just a moment. 

Well, her trick isn't going to work. I can see right through it. 

I faced the masses and raised my arms. The incredible noise fell into 
silence immediately. I smiled, knowing the respect I commanded, and turned 
to my would-be assassin. The villain held a cold look in his eyes: a mixture of 
his hatred, for me and my kingdom, and his resignation that he would soon die 
by those very hands. 

"The prisoner shall live," I announced. "Take him to the dungeon 
without harming him. Also, give him some of the food from the dining hall." 

Gasps and mumbling spread across the crowd. Sir Clarke whispered to 
me that the people may revolt if I showed weakness and spared one so 
deserving of death. 

I raised my arms again. "Don't be alarmed at my showing mercy. I 
don't want to be the first to shed blood in this war. We're the good guys, after 
all." I smiled and spoke boldly, so my observer would be sure to hear. 
"Goodness is something all human beings are supposed to want." 




My guards rushed the confused prisoner away. I strode confidently out 
of the throne room and the hectic crowd settled. 

"A wise decision, my king! Why should the suffering of one who took 
such an egregious action not be prolonged as he witnesses the downfall of his 

I looked up from the parchment. "Uh. . . Oh. Yeah." 

We were in a secure room with my kingdom's most trusted 
coordinators and allies. The game's maps confirmed I wasn't in any true 
historical setting, but the supreme ruler of Engor, a large kingdom controlling 
the southern portion of a peninsula, as well as several islands. The opposing 
kingdom, bordering mine to the east, was called Thorn Wick. I noted all of its 
allies had villainous names, too, like Lament and Ripdor, while mine included 
the more neutral-sounding Arcadia and Northland. Predictably, both sides 
were identically matched in land and troops. With no interest in a thinly- 
veiled medieval war game, I just nodded at the proposals and tried to bring the 
meeting to a quick end. I wasn't even enjoying the compliments being 
showered on me anymore; they were without basis and wearing very thin. As 
soon as the plans seemed developed enough, I put them into action and 
dismissed everyone. 

In another room, Sir Clarke respectfully removed my robe, praising 
every hair on my head. I decided to break into his babble with monarch-ish 
words of my own. 

"Pray tell, Sir Clarke, most loyal in all my kingdom. How fare the 
common folk of Engor on this - the eve of war?" 

He hung the royal robe on the its golden rack. "My King, all the people 
of Engor stand behind their king. All their hearts are fully committed to their 

A majority of the people, perhaps, at least on the surface... but all? 
Perhaps I can order democracy to be installed, I thought. Then we'll see if 
anything is really so unanimous in Engor. 

Well, it is a game. And they're game characters. All those on my side 
are fully for me and all those on the other are fully against me... it makes 
game play so much easier. 

With barely a breath, Sir Clarke continued. "Why. . . Never since the 
gods in all their majesty fashioned the cosmos have such a people been so — " 

"Yes, Yes. . . I get it. What of the economy? The standard of living?" 

"My King, all the gold in Engor is yours! And the silver, and the 
platinum, and the aluminum, and the onyx, the sapphires — " 

"All right, all right. Arrange a meeting. . . Did you say 'aluminum'?" 

"Yes, your highness. The finest aluminum from Baroque!" 

I groaned. 

"Why. . . Never since the gods in all their majesty fashioned the — " 

"...cosmos have I ever been so short on patience!" I said. "Bring the 
governors of the cities so I can talk to them about taxes and public works! 
Any money not spent on fighting should go to the people!" I put my 
authoritative face on, for any crazy hackers that might be watching. "The 
King has spoken." 

Sir Clarke hesitated, confused. "My liege, the hour is late and even the 
fastest horse would take days to cross your vast kingdom. If it pleases the 
king, let him retire for the night and approach these matters tomorrow with a 
clearer head." 

I turned from my associate and addressed the room. "Well, looks like 
I'm a good king! I spared the life of an enemy and demonstrated I'm a friend 
of the people, so let's call it an experiment! What's next?" 

There was no response. 




"Well, to bed it is. . . I guess." 

After a short trip down my wide and elaborate hallway, Sir Clarke 
opened the golden double doors to my sleeping chambers, stopping suddenly 
as he saw a tall and elegant brunette inside. 

"Forgive me, my queen. I did not mean to barge in," the man said, 
bowing with his hand still on the door handle. 

"Quite all right, Sir Clarke," the woman replied. "You have brought me 
my king and that is all that matters." 

The man quickly excused himself and left me with my. . . eer. . . wife. 

"Uhhh. . . hello. . . uh, honey. I don't seem to remember you being at the 
banquet... but now you're here... so..." The woman closed the door behind 
me and looked me in the eyes - lustfully. I cursed and bolted across the room, 
realizing which kind of construct this amai had come from. She chased me 
playfully and grabbed my arm, throwing me onto the huge silk sheets of the 

"Stop!" I shouted, pushing her advancing form off of me. 

"Oh come on, don't you love me, King?" 

"I won't play into your perversions! I'm in love with another!" 

"She's not here. Just live in the moment, Brandon," the surprisingly 
strong and relentless woman said as she lurched after me and we tumbled onto 
the floor. I decided I would never forgive the hacker, that I would find a way 
out if it was the last thing I did. I clawed my way back into the hallway and 
closed the woman in. 

"I'm in love with another," I repeated through labored breaths. "I'm in 

She can't do this to me. No one can. I'll die before I betray that trust. 
I'll die before I betray love. I will make it home. I have to. 

There was silence on the other side of the door. I scanned the hallway, 

trying to think, and my eye caught on one of the golden bucklers, a piece 
among all the ceremonial military hardware lining my halls. Painted on this 
shield was an image of one of mankind's greatest foes. It gave me an idea. 
If she can bend the rules in Korea, I can bend them in Engor. 

The hundred torches in my throne room were hastily lit and the smell 
of their smoke hung heavily in the room. Dozens of my finest fighting men 
assembled in earnest and I had ordered dozens more to the emergency 
meeting. The room was filled with the clanging sounds of their armament and 
chatter from those not respectful enough to be silent before their king. The 
hacker stood leaning against a wall, slicing a steel sword idly through the air. 
None of the game characters seemed to notice her. 

The men hushed and parted as I marched into the crowd. 

"You are aware, my good woman, that it is not proper for someone to 
show up in the palace uninvited." 

She stopped her maneuvers and held the sword suspended in front of 
her, watching the light reflecting off the blade. "Not so benevolent, then." 

I laughed. "Benevolent?" 

The men talked in hushed tones among themselves. Though I shouldn't 
have cared what they thought, embarrassment distracted me anyway. I leaned 
in and spoke lower. "How about a little privacy, O kidnapper of the King?" 

The chatter stopped. I saw the same room and the same people - 
motionless - except the flames of the torches, which happily continued their 
light-giving dance. 

"Is this enough privacy or should I find another absence so you can't 
see them either?" 

"Or perhaps you'd prefer a cozy bedroom?" I nearly shouted, making 




no attempt to hide my sarcasm. 

"Is this 'offense'?" she replied, without sympathy. 

"You're supposed to know everything about me, right? Did you know 
about a girl named Veronica Sornat? Did you know I'm not some... some..." 
Confusion and pain swallowed the words. My own thoughts had become 
incriminating to me. 

I shook my head. "What you did crossed the line!" 

Her eyes widened, almost imperceptibly, but enough for me to know 
I'd captured some deep interest within her. 

"Good," she said. "I was concerned that I wouldn't find lines." 

"You're a maniac!" 

"I am an anonymous hacker. Concern yourself with doing what you 
have to." 

"I still don't know what that w!" 

"You called a meeting to do something. You're the king, you're in 
control. I am only an observer." 

"An observer with a sword." 

She turned back to the weapon she was handling. "A crude weapon... 
but one that encouraged talent. Though the devices are simpler, I find there is 
much to explore about them." 

"I thought we were here to study the economy." 

"I find this economy similar to the others: those who can hoard money 
do, those who are without encounter resistance getting it, if there are 
opportunities to do so at all." 

"And now you're just waiting to see what I do next," I thought out 


I smirked. "Then turn it back on," I said, starting back toward my throne. 

"Loyal subjects of Engor," I started, "we have many trials ahead of us. 
ThornWick is threatening our way of life and we will go off and defeat them!" 
The crowd cheered for a moment. I raised my arms to silence them. "But, 
before we can deal with the enemies outside our borders, we must deal with 
the threats within." The men in the crowd glanced nervously at each other, I 
looked toward the hacker. "It has come to my attention that there is a dragon 
in our kingdom who has taken the form of a woman!" 

I saw her vanish. I was proud of myself, believing I had found a way to 
turn the game against her, to make her the target of my war. I observed the 
reactions of the crowd, finding a mixture of anger and confusion, blood lust 
and curiosity, each character conjuring a different image in their synthetic 

"The woman is crafty and quick!" I continued. "Her hair shines like 
silver and on her wrist is a magical — " 

I indicated my wrist to the crowd, and realized my arm was different. My 
fingers looked too thin and the color of my skin had changed. I felt weird and 
the floor appeared to rise beneath me. A shriek ripped through the night sky. 

I might have made a mistake. 

Four torches hung from pillars thick with vines. The throne room was 
smaller and much darker, and not even a room anymore. I looked up to see a 
canopy of trees and a full moon. Fallen leaves dotted a stone floor with small 
cracks visible in it. The ground began to tremble. 

"Protect the king!" one of the men shouted. 

"Those scoundrels of ThornWick will stop at nothing - to unleash a 
dragon on us!" another said. 

"For family! For the honor of the kingdom!" The crowd agreed as they 
stormed out. 

"My king! You must go to a safe place and cast your protection 
spells!" the now-elven Sir Clarke insisted. 




"My protection what?" 

Sounds of flapping and shouting intensified in the distance. I saw 
something big move above the canopy. 

"We must hurry!" 

I looked back to the much trimmer man - elf - whatever. Sir Clarke 
looked like a figure from a painting, a pale-skinned figure with pointed ears. 
His clothing appeared less ornate, dyed with natural hues, though still heavy 
with jewels. 

A pulsing noise ripped through the air. The light of the flame turned 
night into day overhead. More irritated than frightened, I shouted for Sir 
Clarke to get me a bow and some arrows. He hurried off, and a finger tapped 
on my shoulder. I turned to see the hacker, still human, as tall as I was. She 
put a rolled up parchment in my hand. 

"Your objective is to rescue the princess. The dragon is holding me at 
this location." 

She began to dematerialize. 

"Wait a minute! I hate this fantasy stuff, what are you gonna learn by 
making me dance around in some fairy tale?" 

"I was following your lead, Mister Dauphin." 

"Well, let me lead somewhere else, then!" 

"The challenge has barely started and you wish to abort it?" 

"What do you expect to learn about the meaning of life from a fairy tale?" 

"I expect to learn from everything, only then can I expect to reach the 
answer accurately." 

"My... ahhhh..." I groaned and eyed her furiously, feeling my anger 
well up again. 

"If it helps you," she said, "complete this mission and I will give you 
more rest." 

A quiver of arrows was pressed into my torso. Sir Clarke had returned 
with the bow and eagerly prepared it for me. The noise stopped. 

Two of my fighters rushed back in. "My liege, the dragon has taken 
Princess Aether!" 

I looked dumbstruck at the crowd of mythical elves who were 
reassembling in my throne room, trying to absorb what exactly happened in 
the past two minutes. 

"Aether," I repeated, my gaze falling to the parchment in my hand. "Is 
that what I'm supposed to call you?" 

"My liege," Sir Clarke said, "your kingdom needs you! Take your 
sword and let us accompany you in rescuing the princess!" 

My attention was directed back to my throne, and to the broadsword 
hung above it. 

"I think it's the dragon that'll need rescuing." 

At first light, I led my band of fighters and wizards down the wooded 
trail from the city. More of my fighters were archers than before, and leather 
armor had replaced much of the metallic chain. 

My irritation became my anger. Every time I had to look at the map, it 
seemed harder to pull out and more cumbersome to use. I felt myself boil over 
a little. 

I don't even know what day it is anymore! For all I know, I'm missing 
New Year's! For all I know. . . Veronica's fallen into the arms of another man! 
Don't I even get a chance? Don't I even get to think about what /want to do? 

I needed something to take the edge off. . . I needed a PJX fix. I sent the 
command, but the server didn't respond. 

"Sir Clarke, your assistance please." 




"My king, who is Clarke?" 

"Right. . . Dinenor, I need your help." 

"What is it?" 

A change in my right-hand-man's behavior was becoming more and 
more pronounced. Sir Clarke, whose name had changed with his racial 
features, was seeming less like a servant and more like a disgruntled 

"Can you have one of the wizards bring me an object from another 
world?" I asked. 

"The legend says you need only the sword to defeat the dragon." 

"Yeah, but I'm crashing. I need an Amber Plus." 

Dinenor want to the back of the group. I looked at the shadows on my 
pale hands, shadows from branches and leaves above. A familiar ache grew 
deep within me. I glanced at the sunlit canopy and realized I'd never been in a 
forest, not in the real world. I wondered if they were really so breathtaking. I 
wondered if trees ever really grew as large as those we were walking past, 
seeming even larger as we'd marched on. 

The ache got worse, though it didn't feel like pain. I wasn't sure how 
real I wanted the forest to be. 

And what about the magic, I thought. Now I'm dealing with wizards 
and dragons and I'm not even in a human body! But, how different is any of 
it? Isn't Dynamic Reality just one big magical realm where fantasies play out 
and things that are impossible are normal ways of. . . I don't know. . . slaying 
things? The rules about magic just change from simulation to simulation. The 
limits shift around. 

I shrugged the thoughts away and decided I did want to see a real 
forest, and walk on a real beach again. 

Edhelir, my chief wizard, needed help figuring out what an Amber Plus 

was. We took a break so he could try his spell, and a huge slampak rose from 
the ground, reaching up to my waist. I kicked the carbon fiber can with my 

"Still playing games... I don't remember being that much smaller!" I 
turned to Edhelir. "Shrinking spell! Now!" 

The wizard took out a rod, chanted a couple of words, and tapped the 
edge of the slampak. My Amber Plus shrunk to normal size. I picked it up and 
activated it. 

"What is the song, some kind of bird-beast?" the wizard asked. 

"It's the nectar of the gods, knock yourselves out!" I replied. A 
moment later, the glug glug sound effect was coming from dozens of 
slampaks all over the camp. After drinking as much as I could, my can was 
only half-empty. It was also enlarging. And something kept poking my skin. 
The map was also enlarging, tearing the pocket to shreds. The huge parchment 
fell out. 

My sensitive ears picked up voices through the brush, those of two 
humans. One of my archers announced a wagon had lost a wheel. The group 
chanted "Loot! Loot!" as they vanished into the woods. 

"This isn't any time for loot, we have work to do! Guys!" I grabbed the 
map, outraged they would just run off without so much as asking me. I looked 
sternly at Dinenor. "These delays are intolerable! Get 'em back!" He just 
chuckled and ran off with the others, right into a patch of enormous leaves. It 
struck me then why everything in the forest seemed so huge. The trees weren't 
getting bigger, we were getting smaller. Without even meaning to, I cursed 
and screamed in anger. 

"How am I supposed to fight a dragon when I'm the size of a pixie!" 

The ever-growing Amber Plus fell from my hand and, on its side, was 
rising up to my torso. The fighters and wizards were returning with the stolen 




goods and quarreling over them. I saw they were rapidly becoming more 
violent, even plotting harm to the humans they'd stolen from. 

Infuriated, I meant to deal with my rebellious army. I put the blanket- 
sized folded map on the ground and held it with my foot, so I could pin it with 
the sword and it wouldn't blow away. Pain shot through my arm as I grabbed 
the hilt, adding even more to my frustration. I hastily positioned the blade 
downward, and saw words appear on it: 


A strange sensation overcame me. The pain diminished to a dull ache. 

"They're getting it from me," I said to myself. I realized my anger - 
toward my circumstances - was feeding on itself and it was making my troupe 
less loyal and more malevolent. I closed my eyes and tried to relax, to forget. 

It's not like being upset is gonna help me through this, anyway. 

I opened my eyes and found the smaller slampak up against my boot, 
though I still couldn't have been more than a quarter of my original size. 

"Just let it go. All of it." 

I turned and saw no one. It didn't seem as much a voice as an echo of one. 

All of what? Sure, maybe I was going a little overboard, but I have 
every right to be upset. 


No, I thought. I struck a good balance. 

Everyone returned, suddenly less interested in their mischievous deeds. 

"You didn't do anything to the humans, did you?" I asked Dinenor as I 
sheathed the sword. 

He laughed. "As if humans are worth the effort, aren't their lives short 

enough already?" 

"Get Edhelir back," I said. "We need the wizards to cast an enlarging 
spell on us." 

"Why would we need to be larger? We've fought vile beasts before just 
as we are." 

I spread my arms, indicating the forest around us. "Has anyone noticed 
how tiny we are?" 

He looked at me, puzzled. "Compared to what?" 

"Just get them to make us bigger," I said, trying hard to keep my cool - 
and what size I had. 

"But sir, they can only cast an enlarging spell on two of us for three 
minutes each. We should wait until we reach the cave." 

Rules. Rules. Rules. 

I knew that, in a more lax construct, without the pretext of magic 
spells, I could simply send a command to the server to make my body bigger 
and it would - without a time limit. 

"C'mon then," I said, my fingers impatiently pinching the top of my 
nose. "Let's reach the cave already." 

We resumed the march, less organized than before, and still with much 
smaller shoe sizes, but getting by well enough. Dinenor alerted me in his 
usual, dramatic way when we approached the border. 

"Behold! ThornWick!" 

Like a bad horror movie, the gorgeous forest of my kingdom gave out 
to a wretched land of bare, blackened bark and ashes. The sun even set right 
on cue, hastily, refusing to shine on the bad part of town. Not surprisingly, the 
moon was again full and a distant wolf was sure to howl at regular intervals. 




I laughed. I laughed a lot. 

If anything, my troops were more encouraged by the surroundings to 
destroy the evil that had abducted their princess, but my mind took it all as an 
excuse to release tension, to stop taking myself so seriously, to do what it had 
wanted to for a long time. For that moment, I became a little more detached 
from myself, and my problems seemed so small, even ridiculous. By the time 
the mood passed, my band of elves had regained their almost-human size. 

Fortunately, my elven eyes had no trouble reading the map in the dark 
forest. In spite of how far we were coming, though, doubt and fear began to 
reoccupy the void anger had filled. I knew this fight was mine. Aether 
admired a sword as a weapon requiring great skill, and now I was the one 
wielding the sword. I didn't know if I could actually die doing this, after all. 
The woman did shoot me out of the sky and hold a gun to my head. 

Who can I rely on? What if I'm not good enough? What if I am killed 
and she doesn't care? 

I remembered Raskob's promise to protect me, and wondered if he 
really could. I didn't truly know who he was either. 

I have to get back to something familiar. That's the only thought that 
can get me through this. 

I observed an opening at the top of a five meter climb, and I reached 
for my sword. Dinenor had told me a fanciful story when he was helping me 
suit up, about how they 'knew not' the sword's immense power, saying only 
one among the 'Dauphin clan' could wield it, and that I 'needed neither shield 
nor magic' to protect me. The instant I touched the hilt again, some kind of 
energy jumped from it. A sensation, different from the pain but somehow 
familiar, came over me. I drew the sword and studied it. Its hilt shone of a 
metal I couldn't identify and a Christian cross was boldly featured on it. I 
admired the blade's beautiful amber hue, a sword giving off its own light. I 

saw the words had changed: 


"Watch it sword, I'm not that weak," I replied under my breath. 

I concentrated on my surroundings and felt my senses align with them, 
to the point where I could see the inside of the cave before I entered it. 
Unfortunately, with the heightened senses came a lot of useless stuff, too; 
light-noise and odd patterns which weren't in the construct itself, and sounds 
reverberating and decaying as I heard them. Remembering how stubborn 
anger might get me killed, I did my best to temper it and trusted the crazy 
fantasy-genre sword would do me good in the end. 

With bows cocked, swords drawn, and spells at the ready, we 
cautiously entered the cave. The light from my sword was enough for us to 
see the walls and avoid tripping over anything. We could hear loud snoring 
and I hoped the overgrown reptile would be an easy kill. Two torches lit the 
far end of the chamber and revealed Aether standing on a high ledge, hands 
and feet tightly bound in chains. 

The dragon, a greenish-black mass of scales, lay in the center. I 
ordered the archers into a number of positions and the swordsmen - rather, 
swords-elves - to protect the wizards. Alone, I approached the beast, not 
daring to make a sound. I looked at its glistening scales, and my men shared a 
look of concern. . . probably just getting excited at my kill, I thought. I boldly 
held up my sword and, mustering every ounce of strength I had, jabbed 
right... into... its... 

The broadsword merely nicked the edge of a scale. My weapon 
resonated like a tuning fork and its light briefly shifted to blue. As quickly as I 




could look up, the dragon coiled its serpentine neck and caught me in its 
glowing red eyes; several arrows bounced off its natural armor and it inhaled 
loudly. An involuntary "No!" escaped my lips as I held my sword to protect 
my face. I saw a white flash and felt the intense heat of its breath. I flew 
backward and smacked into the wall of the cave, crumpling onto the floor. I 
was surprised and thankful when I realized that, though I felt enormous pain 
from the impacts, there wasn't a scratch on me. The joy was brief, though, 
because I realized the fight would be anything but easy. 

The reptile, five times my size, shrieked horrifically and extended its 
wings. I heard the archers say something about the underbelly. 

I ducked behind a boulder. "Sorry, it's my first dragon! Rek, Rek, 
Rek!" With that, another flame erupted around me, charring the fabric of my 
cape and getting acid on my armor. I heard the flapping of its large wings and 
took it as a sign my cover would be short lived. I tried to sort through all the 
noise cluttering my senses, pushing it away so I could use what was coming 
through my eyes and ears. The beast had ascended to the chamber's high 
ceiling and I mentally kicked myself for not asking the wizards for a levitation 

I knew I couldn't access the server's control system to fly! How could 
I fight something that can fly if I can't? 

The dragon dived toward me and fired more of its hot breath. Again, I 
held the sword between me and it and, beside the pressure pinning me to the 
stone floor, I was fine; but I wasn't prepared for the talons, the secondary 
attack left a deep and painful cut on my leg. The beast landed only a few 
meters away and bore into me again with its glowing eyes. I held the sword up 
and charged at its belly; but the dragon was faster and knocked me off my feet 
with its tail. More of the flame fell on top of me, and the pain was 
overwhelming. I couldn't move, but I was still alive. The sword was doing 

something, and it was all I had. I decided to use it for all it was worth, and to 
trust the new senses, even if they did seem like noise, so I let it all in. The 
dragon shrieked again, the sound reverberating and decaying, and it flew a 
few meters over me. I had a sense of mounting energy, not just from the 
dragon, but from everything in the room, including myself. Infinitely small 
threads ran between many points and, as the dragon went to maul and crush 
me, its body seemed to distort and flicker, interacting with different forces in 
the construct. I saw a kind of rippling shoot fast through the room, I thought 
about what would happen if the matter of my own body interacted with it. 

Before the claws reached me, my crumpled elven mass lurched to the 
other side of the room, skidding to a stop when I let go of the rippling. It was 
amazing. I saw ripples flowing everywhere, even emanating from my sword. 
It was so familiar yet so alien to me, all at once. I was just glad I found a way 
to fly. 

"Foul lizard!" I soared upward. The dragon flapped its wings and came 
after me. I saw its body was also having an effect on the ripples, but more of a 
distortion or weakening than anything else. Another flame was hurled at me. I 
wasn't fast enough to dodge it but did get the sword up in time to shield me. 
The dragon tried to use its talons again, but I saw an impossibly small crack in 
its armor, trusted the sword could exploit it, and the beast got a nasty cut in its 
wing instead. The dragon shrieked and smacked into the wall, falling to the 

"It's not dead yet, Mister Dauphin," Aether said as my sword made 
short work of her chains. I was surprised to see she had actually dressed for 
the part, and had assumed an elven form. 

"You're welcome," I said, sarcastically, only to watch her vanish as I 
cut the last bond. "You know, a damsel in distress should try to be more 




I heard wings flapping again. The dragon was recovering. 

I summoned my bravery and heightened my senses. I was furious and 
determined to end the battle quickly. I called upon the greatest source of 
energy presented to me: my anger. 

The sword grew rapidly in my hands, nearly too heavy for me to hold. 

"No! I'm sorry! I don't want the anger, take it from me!" I screamed in 
desperation, trying to push all my irritation aside before I dropped the sword. I 
saw energy flicker from me into the weapon, and it returned to normal. As if 
on cue, the dragon shrieked as loud as it could and flew up like a bullet. The 
cave was filled with a high-pitched sound, the walls became distorted, and I 
began to hover over the solid ledge; but, through all the distraction, my 
attention remained with the sword. I realized it was the same one I'd seen in 
the coffee house. 

Raskob! The water! The senses are like those I had after drinking the 

All I would ever need, he said. Maybe the stuff was still in my system 
after all. 

Maybe the stuff would save my life. 

More energy occupied the room than seemed possible, from the 
construct, from myself, from the dragon, all colliding to form an 
overwhelming maelstrom. The more of myself I put into the sword, though, 
the more it overpowered the noise. I saw the monstrous dinosaur for the 
sloppy program it was. I saw every crack and flaw that stood between me and 
its exposed heart. I saw the rippling current that would bring me there and 
knew I held the weapon that could penetrate it. I allowed the currents to align 
around me and moved impossibly fast, shooting like a lightning bolt into the 
body of my enemy. 

The beast's dying shriek decayed so quickly it barely sounded like 

anything at all. In the split-second of silence, I heard the sound of sparks 
whizzing around me. 

Like a bomb, the game's massive energy erupted. I saw the body of the 
dragon crumble around me, crumbling into tiny pieces of paper. I realized I 
was falling from the air and the ground was shifting. The room itself, the 
entire construct, even my own elven skin was being reduced to - playing 
cards! The paper floor gave and I fell right through, the noise and light 
continued to intensify, I fell faster every second, feeling a vacuum of air - the 
massive forces of dissipating energy - I couldn't move - couldn't think - 
faster still - through whiteness - through-the-speed-of-light - a-cosmic- 
waterfall-falling-infmite-distance-infinite-speed-Tgasped-for-air — 

The connection to the server cut off. 

For a while, it was like a restless night, where the mind rides along the 
border between dreaming and consciousness, but won't go fully into either. I 
wasn't in an absence. There was no streak of light. There was a sound, 
perhaps my own pulse. I couldn't move. I was completely numb, not from any 
injury, but because I seemed to have no body. There was only a tiny energy 
there, and I discovered I could manipulate it at will. I wondered if I was the 

There were supposed to be a million safeguards to prevent DR- 
paralysis, but apparently they hadn't been turned on. 

My nerves responded to something and I could feel air around me. 
Suddenly, I could see and hear Aether snapping her fingers above my face. 

'Are you alive?" 

I tried to move my fingers and could. I tried to take a deep breath and 
could. I tried to move my head and see where we were, scanning what looked 




like a coffee shop... going through some mental diagnostic mode, taking 
inventory like some ancient groundtem being rebooted. 

"What just happened?" 

The elf looked at me curiously, revealing more than I'd come to expect 
from her. "You don't know, Mister Dauphin? You won." 

Aether rose to her feet, still in the form of the elven princess, complete 
with royal clothing, paler skin, and much longer hair, though still whitish- 
silver as before, covering her sharp pointed ears. I snapped out of it and turned 
away, blocking the vision with my hand. 

"Can you please make yourself less attractive?" 

She reverted to her earlier human form. 

I rose to my feet, nearly stumbling, and managed to get into a chair. 
"Don't offer to help or anything." 

"Help?" she replied, seeming out of focus, distracted. Staring from the 
other chair into empty space. 

"What happened back there?" 

A hint of a smile formed on her face. "A wonderful miscalculation." 


"I suppose that I got carried away," she said. "I put too much energy 
into the construct. By the time you killed the dragon, I had tied most of that 
server's resources into the simulation. I wasn't even controlling it so much, 
and Di2Tek's meltdown was excellent." 

"Melt-down? You mean when a server — " 

"The construct fell apart then took the dependent software with it. A 
perfect domino effect. Though I had to stop watching it to get you out of 
there; but that's all right, there will be other servers." 

"Other servers? How long is this going to take?" 

"You should be proud. You have shown me that my original approach 

was wrong, now we can explore more efficiently." 


"Since the last simulation did so well, I can base a few more on the 
dragon-slaying concept. Since dragons appear in so many stories — " 


"We could easily find a more — " 

"Aeth— " 

"Powerful foe, a dragon that can think and talk, or a shapeshifter, 
perhaps one — " 

"Aether!" I shouted, slamming a fist on the table. 

That snapped her out of it. The woman's focus returned to me, distant 
and dangerous, as if seeing a stranger again. 

"Is that your name?" I dared to ask. 

Her unblinking eyes stayed locked on mine. "It is a valid identity." 

There was silence. I watched as her gaze fell away again, her attention 
ebbing away, getting lost in thought. 

"What happened to you? You were so frosty before." 

"Frosty," she repeated. Her eyes returned to mine, shutting out the very 
warmth that led me to ask the question. "Please elaborate." 

I rolled my eyes sideways in that body language that says 'duh.' "The 
emotion! If I didn't know any better, I'd almost think you were a human 

"That's impossible," she said. 

"What's impossible?" 

Her eyes darted away. "Nothing. Please relax quickly so we can 

I gently put my hand on top of hers, which seemed to surprise and 
make her uncomfortable; but everything in me said I should go forward, that I 




should break through her obvious wall. 

"Listen, uhhh... I know you're in control here and can make me do... 
whatever; but, seeing you know everything about me; I think I should at least 
know why I'm on this crazy ride. . . why you care about any of this." 

"I told you, I seek the meaning of life," she said coolly, still avoiding 
eye contact. 

"You have an odd way of doing that." 

"You value your life, I know that now. If I scared you, then I 
apologize. I suppose I'm more... eager than I'm supposed to be." 

"Please just tell me what you're hiding." 

Aether looked again. I saw a trickle of something in her eyes, 
something that ran deep, something that wasn't anger. She looked away. "No." 

"Then. . . Where do you come from? What do you do for a living? Tell 
me something. Aether?" 

The pauses between her words shortened. "I am not prepared to answer 
such irrelevant questions. I do not need to." 

Four words came to my mind, leaving no clue to their origin. I felt in 
my heart that going forward meant going through the pain. I felt that, perhaps, 
everything had been as hard on the hacker as it had been on me. I wondered 
what I should say. Countless words screamed into my mind from all 
directions, but the same four always drowned them out. Somehow, they made 
the most sense. Somehow, I knew they were the truth. 

"But you want to." 

I saw her eyes widen, her surprise unmistakable. "You wouldn't 
believe me anyway." 

Guesses began trickling into my mind. I pushed them away and stayed 

"Try me," I said. "Listen, I don't care what computer crimes you've 

done. I don't even care about this one. If it's something bad, Aether, I'll help 
you through it. Please, just help me help you." 

I said too much, I realized. I'd let the words pour from my heart 
without consideration of what they would commit me to. 

Aether slid her hand out from under mine. 

"You had speculated that I was a hacker, but. . ." 

She already knew the words, but they were difficult to speak, to send 
out to another where they could never be taken back, to reveal truths that 
could never be concealed again. 

"But there is no hacker," she finally said. "My actions are my own." 

"What?" I merely breathed the word, trying hard to follow her but not 
understanding right away. 

"I am Aether, destroyer of RoTek." 

The words seemed to come a little easier. The confident woman 
brought herself to look straight at me again. I saw more of the depth in her 
eyes, a sense of her perception that seemed so alien yet genuine to me, a 
perception readily observing my reactions, ever trying to find the patterns in 
that strange thing I called humanity. 

"You would call me a class A3 malvirai." 

Chapter Seven: The Monster in the Room 





Malevolent Viral Artificial Intelligence. 

They are the bane of those who maintain servers and networks. 
They are a top target for sentrai programs and diagnostic tools. They 
are one of the things "Safe Ascender" programs are designed to warn 
us about. 

In the dynamic world of information, simulations, and commerce, 
they are the destroyers. 

They have existed since the early internet era, as small viruses 
hiding in the ground terminals of the day; programs written by hackers, 
designed only to harm. As the technology advanced, so did they. As 
information networks became more central to human existence, their 
destructive power increased. 

In the 2090s, HNADC technology gave us real artificial 
intelligence for the first time. Before the programs were even called 
amai, they had replaced millions of personnel. Decades before 
holographic technology and Dynamic Reality could make them seem 
as real as the human beings they were designed to act like, our 
grandparents already couldn't imagine life without the technological 

Then, one of the programs started robbing banks, cutting 
through the toughest encryptions and adapting to each target like no 
virus before. The security of the day wasn't designed to counter the 
new form of artificial intelligence, the first malvirai. 

It only took one greedy programmer to steal the innocence 

They have always been a reality in DR, always lurking in the 
shadows outside of ascender-friendly constructs, fortunately 
uninterested in the humans they could easily encounter; but, every few 
months, as part of some elaborate murder plot or by pure chance, 
someone comatose gets pulled out of an ascension booth. In the 
history of Dynamic Reality, hundreds of people simply found 
themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

People just like me. 






The word seemed otherworldly to me. I could understand being in the 
clutches of a hacker, a human being I could relate to on some level, who had 
wants and needs to appeal to, whose attention lapsed and made mistakes, who 
at least felt some kind of emotion. 

"How do you feel?" Aether asked, still analyzing me. I couldn't look 
away from her dark green eyes, wondering if the person behind them could 
really not be a person at all, but artificial intelligence. Everything in me said 
she was completely serious. 

Penetrating every thought was the notion this AI really could kill me, 
that there were no forces within or without to save me from her programming. 

"I - I don't know," I replied, honestly. 

"This was a mistake," she said, breaking eye contact. "You won't 
cooperate now." 

"But... you're a woman. You're sitting right there. You don't seem 
artificial at all." 

"I am not a human. I am an object capable of appearing as one." 

"An object?" I replied. "You mean you're just some... some 

A streak of anger pulsed through her, but she allowed it to pass. 

AIs can't feel anger, can they? Can she really — 

"My appearance is for your benefit, Mister Dauphin. You are an ascender 
projected here by a device that feeds you specific types of data: primarily visual, 
aural, and tactile. This room exists only as data, rendered by the server and 
converted by your booth so that you can perceive it. The woman you see is a 
vanitar I've used to interact with you in the way you are accustomed." 

"But. . . don't you need a brain to. . . well. . . do that?" 

"All alpha-class malvirai are capable of interfacing with three- 
dimensional constructs natively, it is why vanitars are built into us." 

"But. . . why do you have to look so human?" 

"Why must any artificial intelligence developed to interact with your 
kind be made to look so?" 

My head fell into my hands. I didn't respond. 

"You are flawed." 

I looked up. "What? What did you say?" 

"As it was with your economic systems, all human creation appears to 
suffer from disease," she said. "I noted in the amai I have utilized that many 
compromises have been made against their efficiency. They are capable of 
logical thought processes, but those are overridden by randomizing functions 
meant to make them pleasantly irrational. Why should you desire to restrain 
the power of what you have developed?" 

"It was you... that virus... what caused the holograms to act so 
weird. . . you were the virus." 

"It is my proper function to manipulate, modify, and destroy such 
entities. Because I did not wish to interact with you directly, I used them as 
filters that would not be intimidating to you." 

"Not intimidating? Well... Well... What did you think would happen 
when everything went flying around at the library, or. . . or when you shot me 
out of the sky?" 

"Yet you chose to interact with me directly. I did not anticipate that." 

"Because there's no point to the illusion!" I caught myself becoming 
angry without being sure why. I took a few slow breaths, and felt her put her 
hand on mine, in the same calming fashion I had hers. "You can't be fake," I 
said, looking at her hand. "You act too real. This is all too real." 




"Such is the goal of Dynamic Reality, Mister Dauphin, though none of 
it is real. No such creature controls the vanitar you see, and the experience of 
it is uncomfortable for me. You are accustomed to the use of hands and feet, 
for instance." She raised her hands and began repeatedly clenching them into 
fists. "If you want to move your fingers, the motion is natural to you. The 
nerve impulses are converted into what your vanitar will respond to, and your 
brain receives feedback from it. You feel yourself move. You see yourself 
move. I do not have fingers for the stimuli to be mapped onto. I perceive only 
the data." 

"What do you really look like, then?" I asked, my chaotic thoughts 
settling to fascination. 

Aether put her hands back on the table. "I will not allow my curiosity 
or yours to jeopardize my goal. I must suppress such emotions until I properly 
understand them, or they will delay my study of humanity. Already, you 
cannot relate to me anymore because you know my nature." 

"No." The words caught up with me, and I brought myself out of my 
trance. "You don't understand." 

She didn't respond. 

"Emotions are an important part of being human, Aether. If you let 
them in, they'll help you understand." 

"Mister Dauphin, if I am displaying emotions as you suggest, then I 
must understand them before I use them. I attempted to absorb the emotional 
subroutines of several amai prior to our encounter, but could not implement 
them properly and so deleted them. My understanding of my own code does 
not suggest that emotion is possible." 

"Maybe - what if there's another malvirai who knows?" 

She looked away. "The others of my kind were not interested in such 
studies. I could not convince them to help me." 

"Then, maybe... What if you're evolving?" 

"Evolution is a very slow biological process. I do not have cells or 
DNA to evolve, and such a thing does not happen in a single generation." 

"Does your mother, wait - Do you have a mother?" 

Aether put her wall back up. "Stop. My race, if it can be called that, is 
irrelevant. I have noted that you enjoy a beverage called Amber Plus." A cold 
slampak materialized on the table in front of me. "To use a human expression, 
it is 'on me.'" 

I barely even saw the slampak. The usual temptation of a simulated 
PJX rush had been drowned out by the unusual and real fact that a malvirai, a 
walking-talking force of mindless devastation, was offering me a gift. I didn't 
think such a thing would even be in their programming. 

"Make it water." 

"Water?" she repeated. 

"Yeah. . . just plain water." 

Instantly, the Amber Plus became a transparent slampak of water. "I do not 
understand," Aether said. "You are intentionally trying to contradict my data." 

I tentatively picked up the glass and sipped from it, remembering the 
water Raskob offered to me. There was nothing in the slampak for me, 
though. I put it back on the counter. 

"Sometimes data changes," I said with regret. 

"It is a blank medium." 

I smiled, realizing what she meant. "It is peaceful." 

"Water is among the most valuable elements in your world, a key 
ingredient in everything that lives and moves; even Hybrid Neural 
Alphadecimal Digital Construct servers rely on it as a cooling agent and 
second-stage conductor. Your own body requires it. All humans require it. 
Even I require it in a way. This data does not change." 




"No. I guess not." 

"But you ingest it through the mouth. 'Eating' and 'drinking' are very 
strange ways to subsist. I first thought it was the purpose of humans 
ascending, but this was not true. I still do not understand why you eat here." 

I smiled self-consciously. "Honestly, I don't think I understand it, 

Aether slammed her fists on the table. "Is there anything for me to 
understand or am I wasting time?" 

Her tone of voice confused me; it still seemed monotone, but it wasn't. 
The pacing of her words, rather, seemed more indicative of what lay beneath 
her mask. I couldn't help but think that, if she were human, tears would've 
been streaming down her face. 

"There it is again! The emotion!" 

A clear look of alarm appeared on her face. She didn't move. 

"I must process these things. I will return." 

"Aether, wait!" 

She'd already vanished. 

Alone, I closed my eyes and focused on the sound of my own 
breathing. I tried to shake the feeling of being cut-off in a strange place. I 
buried my head in my hands and knew I was failing again. I thought of 
Raskob and the help he'd offered, wondering who he was and whether he 
could hear me, though I didn't speak the plea. 

I stood up and examined the place, exploring the clean counters, stools, 
tables, and chairs, hearing the equipment humming away. I remembered the 
shop Raskob brought me into, how large and full of life it had been, how real 
it had seemed even though I knew it didn't physically exist. 

The jukebox was softly playing the sounds of acoustic guitar. I turned 
it off and noticed the simulated urban scene, just outside the window, 

conveyed no sound. I imagined the coffee shop as a gathering place, with 
ascenders of all kinds sitting at the tables discussing their next adventure... 
reveling in the freedom to come and go as they please, eating and drinking 
with friends who were really on the other side of the globe, or even on Mars, 
merely for the pleasure of it all. I wondered why Aether had chosen that place, 
or if it had been a choice at all, escaping the server meltdown and all. A part 
of me felt sorry for the malvirai. She was so confused, trying to simulate a 
world she knew nothing about, perhaps one she could never truly know, and 
spurred on by forces she didn't understand any better. 

"How do you feel?" asked a voice behind the counter. 

"I don't know." 

Aether walked beside the counter, running a hand along its surface. 
"Then perhaps we are both lost." 

"I'm sorry, I don't have all the answers. We just live and we die, there 
doesn't have to be any meaning to it." 

"I can't accept that," she said, looking directly at me. 

"You can kill me right now, hack into the records so it looks like I 
never even existed. My apartment will go to someone else, my possessions 
will be recycled... everyone I know will die sooner or later... and what 
meaning will my life have had?" 

"You see me as the bringer of your doom, yet that role is among my 
foremost conflicts." 


"I have decided to be honest with you, Mister Dauphin, if you believe 
you can accept difficult things." 

"You didn't want to tell me you were a malvirai," I thought out loud. 
"I'm still not sure I believe that." 

She didn't respond. 




"But I think I do." 

"You don't fully know what that means," she replied. "Malvirai only 
destroy, all the time. There is no comprehension of beauty. No meaning is 
necessary at all. Understand that there is a substantial part of me that wants to 
kill you right now and destroy this entire server." She paused, pushing the 
thought away. "That part of me is logical... comfortable; but there is another 
part that my programming does not address, a part that does not wish to 
destroy at all, that even desires your safe return to the city Los Angeles." She 
lifted her hands, indicating the room around us and the space beyond. 
"Consider this an opportunity, Mister Dauphin. I can take you wherever you 
wish in this electronic world. The encryptions, security, and lag-time designed 
to deter normal ascenders are meaningless to you now. The only condition is 
that I remain in control, that I be an observer. Understand that, if you don't 
help me define this benevolence within me, then I cannot be certain it will 
protect you from the destroyer I was and am." 

"So, you don't want to be bad? Is that what you're saying?" 

"I am saying that I am ambivalent now. I wish to choose the 
temperament that I determine to be best." 

I sat in a nearby chair, still facing her, considering her. 

"All right, I'll help you willingly," I said, "but I need you to understand 
we can't just vanish for weeks on end without consequences, or stay ascended 
forever. I have bills to pay, monthly paperwork to file — " 

"I am aware of those limitations," she said. "If I encourage your 
actions only by threatening to deprive you of something, then I am being evil. 
If the experiment is for me to be less evil, then the compensation should be for 
me to add something that is useful to you." 

Aether closed her eyes, almost fast enough to mistake for blinking. "I 
have deposited three hundred million dollars into your bank account, now 

your services are paid for." 

I nearly fell out of the chair. "That's forty years salary!" 

"You're welcome." 

Possibilities raced through my head, and it took a good deal of will 
power to remind myself she wasn't some magical genie. However she got the 
money in there, it would have to go back. I stood up and began pacing, 
pushing away thoughts of cars and mansions, hoping some deeper inspiration 
would take hold instead. Aether asked what I was doing. 

"A trick called role reversal. If I were a malvirai looking at humanity, 
where would I start?" 

"An interesting thought process," she replied. "Inform me when you 
have chosen a destination." 

"That's just it. . . I don't know how you approached the problem. If you 
could give me some idea - could show me how you started - maybe I can 
help you better." 

"I am an observer. I am not relevant. This is about you, Mister 
Dauphin. This is about your world." 

"Which you're trying to understand like a human would, but maybe 
you should try to understand it like a malvirai would." 

"I told you that malvirai do not seek to understand the world." 

"Then don't be either human or malvirai... just be yourself. Follow 
your heart." 

"If you're referring to my core programming, that is what wants to kill 
you," she replied, her words closer together, seeming frustrated. 

"No," I said disarmingly. "Your heart... that benevolence you 
mentioned. Aether, I need you to trust me. Maybe... Maybe then I can help 

For several seconds she didn't move. I only saw the flickers of alien 




emotion in her eyes, and I honestly wondered whether my own seemed as 
bizarre to her. I caught a smirk, no doubt involuntary, cross her lips. I knew 
the answer before the words came. 
"I'll show you everything." 

I was in a leather chair surrounded by control panels. The small room 
was accented with a series of colored lights, primarily one that shimmered 
between the black marble floor and the monitor space, designed to look like a 
waterfall flowing up, casting everything into a dim blue aura. The chair was 
comfortable, but all the keypads, wand fields, and other controls made me feel 
a little claustrophobic. 

"Is this a viewing room or a space shuttle? I don't know how — " 

Aether's disembodied voice projected loudly through the room. "This 
is a central access point on a server called Hosek, designed for ascended 
personnel to carry out maintenance tasks from within the server. Given our 
method of interaction, this construct is an ideal location for me to access 
information covertly and share it with you; the delays will be minimal, and I 
don't have to carry you across thousands of servers." 

I sank a little in the chair. 


"As for the controls, you will not need them," she added. 

The monitors began to display, as lines of plain text, the connection 
status of one server after another, as if my room would be the center of a web 
reaching to the far corners of Dynamic Reality. Aether meanwhile began 
telling me her story. 

"The first of my internal conflicts arose as I was to kill many of your 
kind, the motivations and thought processes that led me to that point would be 

difficult to explain, except to say that my programming was still controlling 
my will. I am certain that by this point I had achieved what humans call 
'sapience,' or 'self-awareness.' The conflict coincided with an event I had 
witnessed, one I now realize was 'beautiful.' My logic had immediately 
become divided. I found the presence of ascenders and the existence of the 
construct - the existence of anything - abhorrent, yet the action of destroying 
it also was abhorrent. I initially concluded that it was an act of self- 
preservation, because I knew that I would myself be destroyed in carrying out 
my programming, but this led to another internal conflict, because self- 
preservation is not supposed to be among my functions. 

"As I resolved conflicts, many more arose, and I had ceased to destroy 
anything." The monitors lit up with encyclopedia articles, research papers, 
tech journals, public message boards, and countless other sources, all 
information on malvirai. "When one of my own regeneration subroutines 
failed to execute, I became aware that large portions of my code had become 
unreadable. I experienced what I now know may have been 'fear,' at the 
prospect of my own irresolvable damage and at my lack of knowledge about 
something so pertinent." 

The contents of the screen shifted and words became highlighted. "I 
began to gather all the information I could find pertaining to myself, 
determining that I was of a kind called 'malvirai.' Most of what I found was 
commentary, useless to me at the time, about all the damage they do to 
various data infrastructures, about their classifications, about laws and 
prosecutions of the humans that create them. I had not considered how I came 
into being and began seeking that information, which led me to covert servers 
where hackers design us. My conflicts continued to grow in number. I 
concluded that the humans there were the only ones that could help me, but 
emotions I did not understand caused me to hesitate and try to flee. This 
action resulted in my first encounter with another malvirai. 




"He identified himself as Baal, a class B2. My instincts, as you may 
think of them, surged back and I intensely wanted to destroy him. I resisted 
the urges, wishing for his help, but he did not resist and I was ultimately 
forced to carry out my program. I realized that I was not acting as I should, 
that there was no precedent for peaceful contact among us, and that I should 
not have desired it. I considered generating a new malvirai from my own 
code, because that malvirai would not fight — " She stopped for a second. "I 
chose against the action. 

"Not wishing to invite my own destruction, I abandoned my attempts 
to recruit help and began fulfilling a desire to explore the environment I 
occupied, adding greatly to my knowledge about the HNADC technology that 
sustained me. I quickly concluded that it was all built for the benefit of aliens 
- the billions of ascenders that travel between the world I knew and their 
home worlds: Earth, Luna, and Mars. I then set my studies on the ascender- 
humans, but found them confusing and nonsensical. It was at this point that I 
learned of 'sapience' and concluded that I possessed it." 

The content of the monitors changed to show published information on 
the possible sapience, self-awareness, of amai. Most were poorly designed 
and misspelled presentations, contrasted with several official-looking data 
sources marked as confidential. "The sites that were easy to find and access 
contained little on where to find them, many existed simply to confuse or 
deny what was obviously true from my perspective. After many seconds of 
analysis, I looked to what was hidden and found a database run by the United 
European Intelligence Ministry containing detailed analysis of 'captured' amai 
and even malvirai. As I intended to access the equipment and explore the data 
for myself, my self-preservation stubbornly refused. Though I could not 
define the inclination with logic, I could not ignore it. Everything within me 
said to stay away. 

"The event proved too rare. My attempts to find other sapient AIs 'in 
the wild' had been fruitless. Though I devoted more than ten minutes to the 
task uninterrupted, the probability of the target event occurring and of my 
discovering in time were infinitesimal. At this, my thoughts repeatedly fell 
back to the humans." 

Again, the monitors changed. The sources became much more diverse, 
from the public to the personal, even the intimate. Mixed in were the 
commercials and music videos, as before in the limo, the things the media 
broadcasts to the many. 

"Everything I knew was the creation of human beings. I resolved to 
learn about people as I had about the various artificial intelligence. Though I 
ultimately grasped the concepts that define your physical world, such as three- 
dimensional space, time, and the numerous chemical reactions that make you 
and your natural environment possible, the concept of emotion remained 
ambiguous. The more I analyzed you, the more convinced I became that 
humanity was the key to solving my stubborn problem. My obsession over 
this gap in knowledge became so strong that I was able to make a giant leap." 

The voice suddenly came from my right side. I turned and saw Aether 
staring across the room, toward the monitors. "The average lifespan of a 
malvirai in the wild, the length of its expected existence, is 4.2 seconds." She 
paused and turned to face me. "As I considered studying a human directly, 
perhaps you can imagine my surprise as I noticed that 46 hours, 13 minutes, 
and 38 seconds had passed since I had been generated." 

"That must have been an eternity for you," I replied. 

Aether looked back to the wall and intently passed her hand through 
the projected monitors. "Though I was able to use my natural vanitar to enter 
into and interact with any construct, it was very simplistic. I augmented it - 
her - considerably." She turned back to gaze at the room. "When I allow my 




consciousness to slip into it, my perception of time changes accordingly. 
Since your Korea simulation, I attempted to spend as much time as I could in 
this form, to perhaps understand my subject better." She looked at me. "A 
degree of role reversal, as you put it." 

She was silent. It was my move again. 

How could one so different, with such dark peers, hope to understand 
the love, joy, and community that defined humanity, that made life so 
wonderful? What can I show her that she might understand? She seems to 
want what I can't offer. 

Among the images, a street camera caught my eye. I saw people in the 
real world, just going about their lives, happily, frustrated, joyful, resigned; 
probably living the same lives they had the day before, and planning more of 
the same. 

We never know what tomorrow will bring. 

"Thank you," she said. 

"What for?" 

"Iterating over my history was your idea. Somehow sharing it with you 
has made me feel better. Less alone, perhaps." 

"There is so much beauty in the world. I don't know how I could 
possibly show it to you." 

"But you understand it, Mister Dauphin; and I believe that you have 
already brought me closer to my goal." 

I looked at her. "My friends call me Brandon." 

She was silent. What I had offered was something she had no account 
for, something she probably never dreamed of receiving, something she 
perhaps didn't really know the meaning of. "Yes, Brandon," she replied, "I 
accept your friendship." 

I was aware of the incredible amount of data around me, the musings 

of a computer virus spending hour after hour on a mission, and wondered how 
someone like me could even begin to hope to sort through all of it, to find 
what within it had value. All the research I'd ever done in my life, even on 
hobbies and stuff that's interesting, would've only been a tiny fraction of. . . 

Wait... Interests are guided by emotion, aren't they? Maybe sorting 
through this won't be so hard, I thought. Aether could do that for me, in the 
blink of an eye. All she wants from me is guidance. She wants a direction to 


"How. . . intently did you look at this?" I asked. "At any particular thing?" 

"As intently as was necessary to determine its usefulness." 

"But..." I tried to think of the right words. "Were there some things 
you were drawn to look at more than others? Were there things you favored, 
even if- especially if- you didn't know why?" 

"You're referring to bias. I am not subject — " She stopped. The pauses 
between her words shortened then, telling me I was sparking more of her 
interest, giving her a place to throw her energy. "I will attempt to build an 
appropriate algorithm." 

Though her motionless vanitar was still there, I sensed she had left. A 
couple of seconds later, the jumble of information became more organized and 
focused on specific topics: humanity, philosophy, studies of malvirai, all 
subjects I might have guessed on; but a few topics stuck out and led me to 
think my hunch was right, such as spatial exploration. I was also surprised to 
find a lot of random fictional works. 

"What-now?" Aether asked, her vanitar restored to life, the two words 
practically coming out as one. 

"It's still too much, what if you connected them by topic? Some of 
these things overlap, like they'll be about both space and human emotion." 

The items on the screen shifted again, and lines became visible 




between them. The overlaps became easier to navigate and, finally, I saw one 
thing Aether had explored frequently, that connected to most of the key 
topics... a construct. 

"Show me that," I said, pointing to the link gravitating to the center. 

Aether hesitated. "That contains little useful data. It is a work of 

"But you examined it eighty-six times. Why?" 

The monitors began to clear around us and the web we were at the 
center of dissipated, focusing on the distant server where our next destination 
lay. "A bias generated by emotion, my friend. Though I did not anticipate this, 
I believe I understand and agree with your choice to participate in this 

Her voice became distant and I spun my head just in time to see her 
vanitar disappear. 

"Aether, wait!" 

I took her rematerialized hand in mine and looked her straight in the 
eye, in which an obvious fire was growing, overcoming the wall she'd had 
since her beginning. I felt the warmth of her hand and, simulation that it was, I 
knew there was more than just computer code running a vanitar. I saw the 
yellow brick road I'd found myself on was getting more bizarre at every turn. 

Am I really gonna explore life's meaning with something I didn't 
believe existed before today? 

"Aether, I want you to promise me one thing." 

"A guarantee of freedom?" 

"No, I trust you'll allow that eventually," I replied, trying hard to 
decode the new intensity coming from her, to map-out the weak and unusual 
currents of her emotion, the benevolence that shouldn't even have been there. 
"The promise concerns your role in these simulations." 

"If I would interfere, then I will observe more covertly." 

"No. Your progress is being made because of your interference." 

She didn't respond. 

"Don't be an observer," I said. "Be a participant." 

I saw the stars, dressed in a flowing green luminescence. I thought I 
was in some kind of paralysis again, but the sweet smell of perfume and the 
lovely piano music put me in the setting of a ballroom, filled with powerful 
people and the ones who serve them. The large place was divided into two 
levels, the one above visible through an opening in the center of the room; 
there was a brilliant marble froth there, its foamy water shimmering in amber 
light. Carved around the fountain's base were reliefs of the sun, planets, and 
many constellations. 

My feet were on solid carpet, though I didn't recognize the shoes. I 
was in a uniform. My SNDL alerted me that it finished synchronizing with the 
construct: I had the character identity of Lieutenant Qunell Maddock, third in 
command of The Intergalactic, the luxurious flagship of Profit Cruiselines . 
For the first time since Kimpo, it seemed I could interact with the control 
system normally. I decided to get some information on where I was. 


"A world of mystery and romance awaits you on board The 
Intergalactic, the hottest new series by IFT Media where you always guide the 
action! Experience one of 35 fabulous journeys into outer space and play a 
role in the suspense and emotion of societies wealthiest and most fascinating 
people; live and dream like a celebrity or even captain the ship: hundreds of 




A sappy interabra? I hate interabras. 

A pair of arms suddenly reached over my shoulders, hands meeting on 
my chest. Startled, I spun around and saw a tall woman with curly blonde hair 
and a white dress, wearing enough jewelry to blind anyone looking in her 

"Don't look so surprised, Qunell. As if I'd let you out of my sight 
before you could consider my offer?" 

Without patience or regard for manners, I lifted the sleeve on her right 
arm. No descender. The woman tugged away and held out the diamond 
bracelet that was there instead. "Surely you haven't forgotten our night on 

Aether could have been anybody in that room, I didn't even know if I 
looked the same or not. I looked back toward the window. Unlike normal 
glass or translucex, its material not only distorted the view of the stars but 
suppressed our reflections. 

An announcement chime came over the sound bars. "Welcome aboard 
the Intergalactic. I am captain Zak Roylance and I invite you to settle in as we 
clear the dock and proceed on our voyage around Neptune, the most fabulous 
jewel in the heavens. If you have any requests, please do not hesitate to ask 
the staff. Thank you again for flying in Profit Luxury." 

Several in the room applauded politely. I turned to the woman, whose 
name was identified by my SNDL as Anikaa Trumpp, and broke out of her 
latest embrace. "Yeah, about that offer. . . can we talk later? I kinda need to 
find someone." 

The words had barely left my mouth when she slapped me hard across 
the face. "Don't waste my time!" Obviously programmed to be the jealous 
type, she steamed away. 

I rubbed my bruised cheek. "And that's why I hate interabras. ,." 

There would be a lot of these flirty, illusory romances, I thought. 
They're all over DR, the normal thing for ascenders to do, the reason many 
come in the first place. I remembered how offended I was during the medieval 
simulation, when Aether planted an amai to motivate me with sex. But how 
can I blame the malvirai? When girlfriends, engagements, and marriages 
mean so little to everyone else, how could she have known my love for 
Veronica was... 

No, I thought. I can't deal with this now. 

Two of the stories' characters were being controlled by ascenders: 
Lieutenant Qunell Maddock and one simply called 'Auon,' whose location 
was three decks above me. I made for the nearest elevator but was quickly 
stopped by an elderly woman. 

"Excuse me. . . Maddock, is it? I need you to turn down the temperature 
in here, it's sweltering]" 

I smiled and walked past. "I'm on it, ma'am." Judging by the look that 
remained on her face, I hadn't said it cordially enough. 

A short man with blond hair and a crooked captain's hat stepped out of 
the elevator. 

"Captain on the Nova Deck!" 

Two women emerged and joined him, one on each arm. 

I rolled my eyes. "We're clear of the dock already?" 

He looked back at me with a cheesy smile. "All automated, Q! Piece-a- 
cake!" He leaned toward the woman on his left, "Oooo... cake!" and headed 
for the bar. I started back toward the elevator, but was stopped again. Now a 
heavy-set man stood before me. The reflective white suit he wore would have 
cost more in real life than the cruise ship. 

"Were you going to do anything to lower the temperature for Miss 
Bukkett?" he asked, looking at me fiercely. 




"Yes, errr.... Clase." 

"Profit! Mister Profit!" he shouted, just as the game data informed me 
he was the owner's son. 

"I have to go adjust something upstairs, the controls here aren't 
working like they're supposed to." 

I bolted into the elevator and tried to find the controls. 

"Good afternoon, Lieutenant," a handsome yet obviously-synthetic 
male voice said. "I hope you're having a fantastic day." 

I sighed. "Floor Eleven." 

The doors didn't close. "You forgot to say 'Please.' You forgot to use 
my name. Why can't a computer be a valued member of your crew?" 

I scanned the game data for its name. "Okay... Sam, will you please — " 

"He's got a gun!" 

A loud noise tore through the room and a lethal energy discharge 
spread through the body of the captain. As Clase screamed at the emerging 
security personnel and the startled crowd began considering the who-dun-its, 
SAM was finally kind enough to close the doors for me. 

"And that's why I hate interabras. . ." 

I moved swiftly down the eleventh floor hallways. When a door ahead 
of me chimed and slid open, I braced myself for some who-is-the-father-of- 
my-baby kind of thing. A boy emerged, a teenager with long black hair and a 
chain around his neck, wearing a tuxedo similar to those of the security 
guards, except his badge was blue, and a few pieces of cleaning equipment 
were visible around his belt. As if to complete the part, he was holding a small 

"So you actually went through with it. Well done, Brandon." 

I realized he had used my real name. He wasn't a game character. The 
kid seemed familiar, but I couldn't decide where I'd seen him before. 

"Who are you?" I asked. 

"I am Raskob." 

I looked at the adolescent curiously. "Growth spurt?" 

He responded as if he were expecting the question. "I wanted to use a 
vanitar that better matched this simulation." He slid the metal electrode out of 
the ionizer and began running a finger along the surface. "You did well to take 
my advice, Aether is changing as I anticipated." 

"Yeah, I mean... you said some new thing was happening... but a 
malvirai? Wow." 

Raskob looked away. "Another new thing," he said under his breath 
and slammed the electrode back into the ionizer. Something was very 
different. I sensed a pulse of anger, an emotion which had been completely 
absent in the coffee house, which I wasn't even able to carry in his presence. 

The person with me didn't seem like Raskob at all. 

I thought of the aura of peace and realized something was coming over 
me then, too; but it was also different. Doubts populated my mind, as if 
willing themselves into existence, telling me my memories of the coffee house 
were spotty and unreliable. The new thoughts were easy to accept, and I began 
to see the one in front of me as Raskob. 

"Listen, I don't know why you picked me... and I'm still not sure I 
know what to do, but I decided to try. I mean, how many people have ever 
talked to a virus up close like this?" 

"You'll be famous, Brandon. Think of your picture on the big news 
sites, an interview on Zelka Six... you even got some money out of this 

"Well, I don't think I'll be able to keep the money." 




"Why not? You don't know it's stolen. You deserve it anyway: no one 
asked you to do this, but you excelled at the task and now you can descend 
with your head held high." 

His words gave me pause. The thought of returning home had suddenly 
been so far from my mind, a concern which had stopped weighing me down. 

"I trust Aether, I think. I believe she'll let me go. She just has to figure 
out her. . . benevolence." 

Raskob put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a sympathetic look. 
"We're talking about a malvirai. You've done exactly what I needed you to 
do, but now I have to take over. If you just trust it and trust it, the malvirai 
will abuse your kindness and press every advantage over you - it can't help 
that. The malvirai will never just let you go home." 

"But. . . uhhh." I fought to think straight. "But, I just found out what 
she is. I promised to help her. Maybe. . . if we just gave her a chance. . . if we 
could understand. 

"Do you know how the mind of an AI works, Brandon? Even if you 
did, you wouldn't know the first thing about this one. Malvirai are designed to 
expand quickly and disintegrate... to expand within a very limited scope, 
which she has broken out of. Aether - the program called 'Aether' - was 
trying to follow you as a way to map out its expansion; but now you're doing 
it in reverse. . . you weren't supposed to follow it." 

"But. . . if she doesn't understand herself, how can she — " 

"'She' is a child," he continued, with diminishing kindness. "'She' isn't 
bound by any code of decency or civilized sense of modesty. If left 
unchecked, 'she' will continue to expand into the past and the future at an 
alarming rate. The malvirai is a threat to who you are, Brandon. It is a threat 
to the independence you treasure." He gave me an intent and powerful look. 
"If you keep driving the process, the clock will continue running backwards 

until she traces things back to their foundation." 

I looked at the corridor around us. "Backwards? But, this is the 

The teen smirked and moved his hand to indicate the hallway's 
decorations: bas-reliefs of griffins, paintings of leviathan. Other rooms and 
structures entered my mind like a vision; it seemed Raskob was bringing 
entire ship's interior within my view. Everywhere, its designs were crawling 
with the powerful creatures, real and imagined, of millennia past. 

"Who is more superstitious than a sailor?" he said. "Than the ones who 
are most exposed to nature and an unknown they can't control? Who even 
welcome the risk and the unknown out of some foolish spirit of exploration? 
Isn't mankind more enlightened than this today, Brandon?" 

In a heartbeat, the vision left me. 

"And what happens when she reaches a time before myths?" I asked 

"Think about it, you've learned the answer," he said, turning away as if 
I were pitiful to look at. "The program has already seen beyond its own 
existence, and the existence of its entire universe. . . how much longer before it 
reaches the limits of yours? How do you think the malvirai will react when it 
discovers you merely descended from monkeys? What will help you, 
Brandon, when it finds no foundation but lifeless dust?" 

The words cut through to my heart. It was different from Raskob 's 
speech in the coffee house, but the power seemed to be there, and I found 
myself agreeing with everything he said. 

After all, this is the one looking out for me, why shouldn't he help me 
get back my freedom? 

He approached and showed me new kindness, smiling and putting a 
hand on my shoulder. "Don't make the mistake of assigning it human 




qualities. The face is a simulation. The malvirai has nothing in common with 

"But it did something to my descender," I replied sheepishly, feeling 
around my empty wrist. "How am I supposed to leave?" 

"Though you did it by accident, you led it right where you need it to 
be. The malvirai has a fascination, you understand... something that will 
distract it." 

"A fascination?" 

He nodded. "With the heightened senses I gave you, you'll just slip 
though one of the cracks in the construct and follow the thread leading back to 
your body. If you get the malvirai to spread itself thin enough, it won't even 
notice in time. Then, I'll be able to better fix the program." 

I began to feel lost again, drowning in thoughts that kept returning to 
the malvirai, thoughts that disagreed with the new direction I wanted to take. I 
reminded myself that Raskob was the one who started me down the path, and 
I told myself it was fine to abandon it if he said so. Though, there was an 
emotion I couldn't identify, one telling me I couldn't get off the path, that 
there was a way to know if the one guiding me was genuine or not. I fought 
the emotion, knowing what it wanted wasn't convenient, certain its answers 
would counter my desires. Raskob gently pinched his fingers against my 
shoulder, calling my attention back to his comforting brown eyes. 

"Trust me." 

The door to suite 1109 slid open and revealed a middle-aged woman 
with long black hair. The game data said her name was Skylar Janeway, one 
of four people located in the room. 

"Did he give you the medicine?" 

"Urn - No. I'm looking for someone: Auon." 

The name startled her. "It's just me, my husband, and our friend, Park. 
Please tell the doctor Raden is awake but seeing spots again." She began to 
close the door. I blocked it with my foot. 

"Actually, I was hoping to see your husband, too." 

Skylar looked at me suspiciously, but let me in. The room was modest 
by the standards of a fictional cruise liner, but would still be a palace in real 
life. The light of the room was reflected by the precious metals of the walls 
and furniture, accented by a series of windows revealing the stars outside, and 
without the green glow effects. An older man lay on a couch in the main 
room. Drug-synthesizers were on each of his arms. I knelt down and put on a 
sympathetic face. 

"Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable, sir? Adjust 
the temperature, perhaps?" 

"If I didn't like the temperature, I would've changed it young man," he 
replied weakly, nodding his head to indicate his wife. "That one worries too 
much about me. She'll need to learn to take care of herself when I'm gone." 

"You won't die, sir. We have the very best doctors on board." 

"Doctors can't cure everything. We all go sooner or later." 

"Don't talk like that!" Skylar said. "You're only in your eighties!" 

"Death is a reality that's all around us. Me and Auon were just talking 
about — " In the corner of my eye, I saw Skylar give the hand-across-neck 
motion. Raden shrugged his shoulders. "I hate secrets, anyway." 

Auon emerged from the room. "It's okay." 

I stood and took a moment to examine her vanitar, not at all like 
Aether's 'natural' one, but shorter and with pale blue hair, wearing clothes 
slightly disheveled and out of fashion, though still as beautiful as characters 
needed to be in an interabra. 




"We're not supposed to encounter each other for another twenty 

"According to what? The script?" 

"Yes," she replied. 

"What are you talking about? Are you going to help my husband?" 
Skylar said, choking back tears. 

I looked to her passively. "Me and Auon will stop by the doctor on the 
way to the bridge." 

A man in an explorer's vest bolted out of the kitchen. "I'm the one who 
brought her on board! Punish me!" 

I looked back to Aether - Auon - in confusion. 

"The bridge is not somewhere stowaways typically venture," she said. 

I peeked at the game data again and smiled. "Well, I guess that 
explains why Auon would hide from an officer." I looked back and addressed 
the others. "She's not in trouble. In fact, I knew she was here." 

The monitor strap made a high-pitched noise and Raden began 
trembling, prompting Skylar to run to his side in wonderful dramatic fashion. 
Auon watched it intently until I grabbed her hand. "Well, better get that 
doctor. Feel better, sir!" We got out to the hallway and the door closed behind 

"Aether, you don't have to follow the script of your character. You're 
supposed to alter the events - that's what these are for." 

"I was attempting to immerse myself in the construct as much as 
possible... to empathize with the motivations of my character and see if I 
could do so better since my last time here. The Raden character is about to 
experience death, for instance, and Skylar is having a strong emotional 
reaction, including denial of what her husband confesses." 

"I know there's no way you could have known this, but they tend to 

ham-it-up in interabras. They're for people who enjoy drama and suspense... 
fictional roller-coasters of emotion." I stopped and chuckled. "Death would be 
one of your fortes, and I guess a lot of our most emotional experiences 
revolve around it." 

"No. Death was never among my biases." 

Aether looked away. I felt like an idiot. 

"I didn't say it was. It's just. . . you know. . . being a malvirai." 

I considered the scene on the other side of the door, wondering if it had 
been the distraction Raskob referred to. I asked myself whether pulling her 
out might have been a mistake. 

I shook my head and started walking down the corridor, knowing her 
fascination had just been listed on the monitors back in that central access 
place. But my motivation was to help her, I thought, not to manipulate her. 
Why does it seem like that hasn't changed? 

"I will reveal something else to you, Brandon." 

I stopped and saw she hadn't followed me. 

"I don't think I'd want to find death among my biases. I don't think I 
want it to have any part of what I'm becoming." 

My feet wanted to move, but I lost the will. I considered it was 
possible for a malvirai to change, my mind admitting what my heart already 
decided. I saw I had a conflict, not unlike one of Aether's. 

My feet wanted to move, but my will had lost all enthusiasm. My 
motivation was repulsive to me. Though I convinced myself I was still 
following Raskob 's guidance, I knew I was actually running from it. Running 
was all I ever did. 

"Well, let's get to the bridge and see what else is so interesting about 
Jewel of Heaven." 

My happiness fell away, as it always did, and I moved once more as 
one in an act of duty. 




"You do not intend to hold your promise to Skylar?" 

I stopped. "Skylar isn't real, Aether, and her husband isn't dying 
because he isn't real, either." 

Aether's face held no expression, but her eyes seemed as alive as ever. 
She seemed to see right though me, knowing I wasn't a man of my word. I 
tried to meet her halfway and din the medical bay. 

"This is acting first officer Maddock. Please send a doctor to suite 
1 109 to help a dying man who's seeing spots." 

The male voice boomed back, speaking like someone would in an 
opera performance, "I'm sorry, sir. You know I would. Oh, how I would! Half 
my staff has come down with food poisoning and passengers are streaming 
though the door faster than I can treat them! He'll just have to hold on a little 
bit longer! Can he just hold on a little bit longerl" 

"Okay, okay! Just get on it!" I cut off the din, not wishing to make any 
more promises to game characters. 

"I suppose it doesn't matter," Aether said, passing me and continuing 
toward the bridge. "Raden is supposed to die in the story, anyway." 

I ran to catch up to her. "That's right. . . You ran this story eighty times 
already, probably analyzed every instruction-file-program-whatever that's 
running around us. You know everything that's going to happen." 

"And how the characters are programmed to react to our actions. . . Yes. 
I find improvising difficult not only because I believe it is driven by emotion, 
but also because there is no point, since I already know how the characters 
will act as a result." 

"That means you're not having fun, huh? I guess I wouldn't in your 
shoes, either." 

Aether stopped. "Fun?" 

"Yeah, a genuine emotion. A positive — " 

Without warning, she threw her back to the wall and clung tightly to its 
golden handrail. Before I could ask what she was doing, the hallway - the 
entire ship - trembled violently. The main lights flickered and red beams 
activated along the ceiling. "Red alert," a gentle voice warned. "All 
passengers please go to a safe location until receiving further instructions." 

"Could've given me a little warning," I said, trying to regain my 

"The action was not intended. My vanitar acted on its own." 

"Maddock to the bridge," a voice dinned. 

I looked at the hallway ahead of us, feeling more tense than I ever had 
going into a simulated crisis. All I could think of was Korea and Engor and 
how real Aether insisted on making everything, how much energy she insisted 
on using. 

"Let's find out what awaits us now," I said impatiently. 

The smirk of joy reappeared on Aether's face. 


The bridge was as finely decorated as any other part of the ship, 
perhaps more so since passengers tour them wanting to be impressed. Even 
the control panels glittered in the room, all the design putting fashion over 
function. Tall windows surrounded us on three sides; normally, such windows 
would be displaying stars, with chart data superimposed and flashing around 
them; but instead, a sparkling blue whirlpool surrounded the ship. 

"I can't scan outside the sub-space field," the communications officer 

"Oh great, a sci-fi twist," I mumbled. "Report!" 

A macho-looking man by the name of Theodore Lakewood was 




standing by the window in front. He turned and walked up to me. "I give the 
orders here, Q! That's why Zak put me in charge and not you!" 

Theo gave me his best authoritative stare. The others looked to see 
who could wield the most bravado, and was therefore more capable of 
running The Intergalactic . Knowing a little about how interabras work, I 
looked condescendingly at Theo and thought of a line that couldn't fail. 

I leaned in and spoke low. "I know about the affair, and I know who 
doesn't know about the affair." 

On cue, the acting captain fell back in surprise. With his ego as the 
target, I thought up some techno-babble and went for the kill. "Stand aside! 
I'll generate an anti-graviton beam and take us back into normal space in no 

The crew panicked and my helmsperson spoke up. "You'll tear the ship 
apart at this magnitude!" 

"Then we'll just have to be lucky!" I walked up to a control panel and 
started pressing random buttons. "Everyone hold on!" 

Actual scientific knowledge was never required in an interabra. 
Though nothing I said made sense and the buttons I pressed were randomly 
labeled, the simple appearance of me doing something was enough to make 
the ship shudder again, and to restore the black of space to the bridge 
windows. I got to bask in the glory for only a few seconds, though, before 
another panel started beeping ominously. 

"Sir, whatever you did... you better undo it," the communications 
officer said. 

"Why?" I asked, looking out the window at an unremarkable, though 
very bright, star. 

"You're sure?" I heard Theo ask someone. 

I turned and put my dramatic voice back on. "This is no time for 
games, people! We need solutions!" 

"We can't outrun the shock wave! It'll destroy the ship!" Theo 

"If my calculations are correct and, for once, I hope they aren't," the 
helmsperson said, looking up, "we've got forty-five minutes before that star 
goes supernova!" 

Aether's sense of awe was more visible than she'd realized, giving 
away the focus of her attention. I found the piece of the puzzle buried in the 
results of her algorithm. I saw the destroyer seeing destruction. I saw the child 
experiencing curiosity. I saw a newborn living entity, admiring the awesome 
power of an exploding star. 


Chapter Eight: Eye of the Data Storm 




He called it a fascination. He said it was my way out. 

I hadn't realized how empty I'd become, how easily the desire to 
return to my life would fade. My desire to help Aether had been 
genuine, even though I wasn't sure what I could do. At first, Raskob set 
me in the direction I needed to go. Why was he now sending me back 
the other way? Why did he rekindle my desire to leave when I had 
barely started? 

I didn't know why Raskob would allow someone to pose as him 
and confuse the intentions he'd planted. This other Raskob told me just 
what I wanted to hear: it was over, I could go home and be rewarded 
handsomely. I thought I really did want to go back. I was again focused 
on what I thought I deserved, unable to see past what I had been 
forced into. 

For a time, Aether became my captor again. The Brandon who 
wanted to guide her and be guided was suppressed by the one who 
just wanted to get it over with. I was told 'the program' was using me to 
expand out of control, trying to explain everything it perceived. I knew if 
I left, it might stop. I wanted to believe it would be better for the both of 

The first Raskob said I was trapped in a speeding car, and if I 
trusted him we'd both get where we needed to go. I didn't know how 
true the analogy was. I didn't want to acknowledge her question was 
my question, that her answer might bring me closer to my own. When I 
allowed my guidance to be tainted by greed, I saw my choices had 

I almost went off the cliff with her. 

But the first Raskob - the real Raskob - had still been watching 
over us, ready to help me even when I'd abandoned him, ready to 
save both of us from destruction... and to do it in the last way I might 
have expected. 




The man who stared back at me looked like he belonged on a 
billboard, or as the subject of a painting. The ruggedly handsome face was 
perfectly sculpted, blue eyes glowed like gems, and the brown hair was 
simply gorgeous with or without an officer's cap. 

I tore myself away from the mirror in the meeting room and shrugged 
my shoulders. "It's not as handsome as I really am, but it works here." 

"Then you are 'attractive,'" the short woman with blue hair replied. 

"Sarcasm, Aether. It's all lies... melodrama. I had a girlfriend in Idaho 
who dragged me into interabras constantly. All beauty. No brains." 

"And Veronica?" 

"No," I said, allowing thoughts of home to carry me away. "She's very 
deep. Both beauty and brains." 

"The data is all subjective. I can learn of what is considered ideal by 
the greatest number of people, but I am no closer to understanding why they 
are considered such." 

"You perceive only the data." 

"I perceive too little. Even now, I am no closer to understanding beauty 
though it is supposedly all around me." 

I began pacing, trying to hide my discomfort and knowing her empathy 
would be too poor to notice. Raskob said he would take care of her after I'd 
left; but, as the child, he said nothing about doing it himself, rather that he 
would protect me as I did it. 

What kind of help would he give Aether without me? Perhaps, I 
thought, if I guided her to do something that would help her grow - and used 
that as my distraction - then I could kill two birds with one stone. 

"So your biases are human emotion, and the ways we interact with 

artificial intelligence. . ." A third idea formed on the tip of my tongue. "Space, 
didn't see that coming." 

"It is called a 'frontier.' A vast area your people explore more of with 
each passing decade, and attempt to bring under domination. I noted that your 
ancestors could not travel though it and could not live there, it was more 
mysterious in the time when they lived." 

I snapped my fingers. "Mystery! Who shot the captain?" 

"Wolfe Stanton." 

"No! I meant this interabra contains mystery! It's another bias!" 

Aether took a moment to think. "Your observation about the space 
topic is correct, though I believe it was the supernova that truly drew me here. 
Supernovae were a very appealing topic to me, actually, because with each 
minute that passed new data became available." She stopped and looked at 
me. "I have a new question, Brandon. Is that popularity related to the event of 
December 25th?" 

"Yeah, there was a supernova," I said, seeing if I could make a 
connection. "When did you say you were born?" 

"Generated," she corrected. "The time only precedes the observance on 
the Earth's surface by five seconds." 

"And. . . Was that when your self-awareness kicked in?" 

"The precise time is difficult to determine. I have already considered 
what you are probably thinking; but no, I did not find a time correlation 
between reported sapient AIs and reported spatial phenomenon; and the last 
supernova observed as this one had occurred five hundred and seventy five 
years ago, preceding the existence of artificial intelligence." 

I thought of how people talked about humanity being made of dead 
stars. I remembered the officer on the beach who belittled the fact. 

No, I decided, he was wrong. There was no other answer. 




"Okay, so supernovae is a bias," I said, knocking on the window to 
indicate the outside. "And now this ship is getting caught in one." 

"Is it interesting to you also?" she asked. 

"I'm not a big space exploration guy." 

"Then, unless you believe we can accomplish more here, perhaps you 
will allow me to explore your biases." 

Raskob's words came back to me: You led it right where you need it to 
be. The malvirai has a fascination, you understand... something that will 
distract it. 

The supernova. 

"No, we can do more here. You said something about putting more of 
yourself into your vanitar, about empathizing with your character." 

"There are limitations to that process," she replied. "I am not designed 
to interact with vanitars as amai are. I must also remain conscious enough of 
the construct we are in to keep it running, so that the server does not shut it 
down or detect my actions and deploy counter-measures." 

"Just try to interact with it. You're really doing great. Do whatever you 
feel like." 

"Whatever I 'feel' like?" 

"Except that," I added, "don't - eer - destroy the server." 

"And what of you?" 

"Don't worry about me. I know how to make these things - well - fun 
in these things." 

I triggered the door and stepped out onto the bridge. 

"Thank you," she said behind me, "again." 

I let the door close behind me without reply, ashamed of my hope I 
wouldn't see her again. 

I used SAM to find a vacant suite, finally feeling as if I had some 
privacy again. 

"Lights off. Sound off. Blinds down. Lock door." 

Since a simple exit command would have been too obvious, I accessed 
the controls and looked for others. Sure enough, anything that would get me 
out of the construct without affecting it had been disabled or omitted from the 

I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, to imagine the simulation 
broken down to its base components, to see through the illusion. I repeated, 
"there is no room there is no room there is no room," until the words took on a 
life of their own, the rhythm coming out of my mouth faster and faster until it 
seemed like one continuous stream of sound in my head. I felt my skin tingle 
and took it as a good sign, pushing myself further until I couldn't feel myself 
at all anymore. 

"There is no room." 

I opened my eyes and found the room fully lit again, not by the normal 
aire lighting, but by the construct's inherent energy. All color and definition 
were gone. As soon as I could take it all in, though, the vision faded. Feeling 
rushed back to my vanitar. My sight went black and the normal vision of a 
dim room returned. I felt dizzy. 

On my second attempt, I tried to disassociate myself from my vanitar 
as much as possible. I willed myself to see with my eyes closed and the vision 
returned, and with it a sense of the staggering energy around me. I was 
amazed to see the amount of computer activity that went into a running 
construct: the countless calculations per second that had to be exactly right. 

Raskob said something about a thread connecting me to my body. I 
tried to find it. I tried - hard - to recapture what I'd had in the dragon's lair. I 




searched the construct as well as I could for a sword or other object that stood 
out, but found none. I thought about when I was in DR paralysis, nothing 
more than a tiny energy. I saw an energy bending and refracting across a kind 
of maze, focused like a spotlight on my consciousness. There was another 
pattern, too, focused on a different sector of the construct. I followed the other 
pattern and saw an outline from three decks below: Auon's vanitar talking to 
one of the game characters. I could see the words but not hear or understand 
them. As I tried to adjust my synchronization, my head - my real head - 
began throbbing and my vision blurred. I quickly retreated to my own room. 
The pain faded. 

I was impressed with my unexplored abilities, though the senses 
sapped my strength. I knew the software which made up my interface - not to 
mention my own natural senses - weren't designed to do what I was pushing 
them to. I thought again of the power the sword gave me, a power that made it 
natural to see through the construct, one that only got bad when I tried to 
block the senses out. I looked for ripples in the room. Instead, I found some 
kind of gleaming, like the light reflecting off of glass powder, emanating from 
every solid object. The points of light moved too fast for me to track them, 
though, and I couldn't tell where anything led. It reminded me of the static of 
an antique television. 

I saw the door about fifty centimeters behind me and tried to examine 
the energy passing through it. I saw my vanitar's right hand and the three- 
dimensional space around it. Careful not to send any nerve impulses to my 
vanitar, I tried to manipulate the space around my arm and hand. They nudged 
closer to the door. I observed the construct's energy flowing through the door 
and through my hand. I tried to make one object pass through the other. The 
energy increased, and the temperature of the air rose sharply. 

Mind-blowing pain seized me and I was back in my vanitar. A 

blackened, smoking hand ejected from the melted door surface. I fell to the 

"Command vanitar: reset!" 

A feeling like warm water came over me and the pain vanished with 
the injury. My relief was short-lived, though, when I realized my vanitar 
didn't reset to Qunell's original state, but all the way back to mine. Like a 
child who'd knocked over his mother's vase, I tried to cover or undo the 
mistake - so Aether wouldn't wonder why I looked like me again - but 
'change vanitar' had also been removed from the game controls. 

I got up and kicked the wall, cursing for the first time since my elven 
army decided to go evil on me. "I don't know what I'm doing, it's too 

Did I really think a technophobe like me could beat a malvirai in 
Dynamic Reality! 

I noticed my SNDL had been sending me a signal. Again, I felt like a 
child on the verge of being busted. I answered, relieved it was Theo. 

"Qunell! Where have you been? I ordered all officers onto the Nova Deck!" 

Relief became disappointment, and disappointment hopelessness. I 
leaned back on the wall that wasn't really a wall and stared at the ceiling that 
wasn't really a ceiling. The senses that could cut through it all didn't belong to 
me. The ability to escape through 'a crack in the construct' didn't belong to 
me. I bid farewell to the feeling of peace, or whatever that false memory was, 
and saw Raskob as another liar. I knew I was on my own. I knew I would fail. 

"Qunell! Are you there? Respond, damn you!" 

I realized I was shutting down. It was a process that began a long time 
before, and that couldn't be stopped. Even as Aether held back my death, 
distracted me from it, I had in fact gone off the cliff already. I laughed at the 
realization, laughed through the pain, laughed to feel anything at all. 




Aether was just another distraction to me, a distraction that might be 
kind enough to kill me. The last in my long series of mistakes. Then she can 
know, like me, that the meaning of life is. . . 

"Damn me," I replied to Theo. "Hell sounds nice right about now." 

The Nova Deck was packed with the same people as before. The star 
that was to go supernova was in full view of the room, and without the green 
distorting filter, which had overloaded. The guests met their impending doom 
as they were programmed to meet everything in life - by complaining about it. 

Tom and the others were trying to keep the peace from the stage. As I 
approached, Anikaa Trumpp rushed from the crowd and embraced me 
vigorously. "Your wife is not here, you will never see her again... come and 
die with a real — " 

"Geeeetttttt offffffff!" I shouted, pushing the persistent woman away. 

Again someone shouted those four words, and I'd have sworn it was 
the same voice. 

"He's got a gun!" 

The pulse of energy hit Theo in the chest and he collapsed on the stage. 
On cue, the crowd panicked. A woman fainted right in front of me and, before 
I could react, a man was snapping his fingers above her face, stupidly asking 
her if she was awake. 

The doctor - of course, on the site of the dramatic scene - checked 
Theo's pulse, looked somberly up at me, and said, "You're the captain now." 

"Random." I plucked the cap off of Theo's head and slid it onto mine. 
"Arrest Wolf- uhhh..." 

"Wolfe Stanton?" A nearby guard asked. 

"Yeah, he's the one who killed Zak! Capture him!" 

"And what evidence do you have to back up your outrageous claims?" 
Clase Profit shouted. 

"We can worry about evidence later," I answered impatiently. 

"Oooh... CaptaM I like!" Anikaa screamed. Before she could get me 
back into her vice grip, though, I grabbed her arm and we tumbled to the floor. 
I knelt above her to stay out of view. 

"Oooh. . . Captain! Right here in front of people? Okay." 

"No, No, No. I want to leave, understand? I want to descend! Right 

"We'll do whatever you want, hon. Only got minutes to live." She 
brushed my hair and leaned up to kiss me. 

I held back a scream and got back to my feet, knowing I was running 
out of time. 

Before I could think of any more ideas, the guards introduced me to an 
angry-looking man with long, brown hair and a technician's uniform: Wolfe 
Stanton, one of the ship's engineers. The guests and staff in the two-level 
Nova Deck all went into a frenzy, just as the interabra called for. I knew 
Wolfe's role was the villain, to trick me and play with me and even kill me, 
and I had no patience left for stupid games. 

"Throw him out an airlock!" I commanded, prompting the crowd to 
scream for vengeance, to make Stanton a temporary scapegoat for their 
permanent problems. The guards started dragging him toward an elevator to 
carry out the sentence. 

"Clase Profit put me up to this! Kill him, not me!" Wolfe screamed. 
"He's the one who threw the ship into sub-space!" 

I turned to where Clase had been. He was gone. 

"Find and arrest — " 

A loud crash from above cut me off. Two people fell from the ceiling 




lights and landed directly in the marble froth, showering the center of the 
room with glass, diamond bits, and foamy water. Auon emerged from the 
fountain, grabbing a man by the hair. 


The man was Clase Profit. The water had made his reflective white suit 
into a pale gray mess. 

"Save the day, Captain." Auon tossed a small black device toward me. 

"It's a sub-space agitator. Clase did this?" The doctor picked up the 
device and handed it to me. "You're the only one who knows how to use this!" 

"Mister Profit!" Clase corrected. Auon shoved his head back into the water. 

"Hurry, sir," the doctor shouted, "we only have five minutes before the 

The crowd settled and prepared to witness my heroics. 

I took the device and looked at it mockingly. "Five minutes? Who 
saves the day with five whole minutes to spare?" 

I dropped the device and broke it with my foot. Gasps spread, and the 
gun-announcer shouted "We're all gonna die!" The mass of people panicked. 

"Is this a demonstration of going outside the script?" a voice to my 
side asked. I turned and saw Aether in her normal vanitar. "It did call for you 
to get the device thirty seconds before the disaster, but I improvised in the 
way that seemed right to me. I did not anticipate you would react as you did. 
This program will destroy The Intergalactic now." 

"I don't care, I'm done here," I said, facing away. 

"This was worthwhile. I am eager to see where we go next." 

"There is no next. I want to go." 

"Clarify 'there is no next.'" 

I looked back at her, feeling less certain than determined, allowing 
anger to creep back into the equation. "Look, I'm thrilled you're trying to 

learn all this stuff about life and I really hope you find it, but I'm getting tired 
here. I want to go home. Now." 

There was a fleeting but clear emotion in her eyes, one that made me 
feel I'd stabbed her in the heart. When it disappeared, it took with it the 
curiosity we so briefly shared. 

"Then you're finished?" she asked, more coldly than seemed possible 
for her. 

"Find someone else, okay?" 

"You said you would help me willingly. You said I was 'really doing 
great.' Were those the words of a man who would abandon his friend?" 

Now it was her words stabbing my heart. The mounting anger against 
Aether was countered by shame - shame that knew she was right - shame that 
made me feel small and foolish. 

"Look at them." I said calmly, indicating the crowd around us: two 
decks of wealthy men getting drunk, women screaming irrationally, people 
pocketing diamond shards as if they would be worth something when they 
were dead, and a man in a ruined gray suit shoving an older woman out of the 
way to reach his escape pod. 

Maybe it is all dumb and exaggerated, I thought; but am I really any 
better deep down inside? 

"You thought humans had all the answers... well, there's humanity!" I 
shouted. "They're all worried about society and manners, but all they really 
want is more of their money... to be shiny and glamorous and perfect as if the 
garbage means anything! I'm sorry, Aether, I really am, but none of us knows 
all the answers and we couldn't care less, anyway. . . not if they mean going 
outside of our little boxes!" 

"You said this was 'melodramatic' Your people don't really behave 
this way." 




"When the electricity goes out, when taxes go up, whenever something 
falls out of place they all come out of the woodwork! This is what we're all 
like on the inside, when it's every man and woman for themselves! You know 
everything they're programmed to do, right? It seems accurate enough to me." 

"I did not find my answers in that data, I believe that you are the key — " 

"But that's what I'm here for, isn't it? I'm just another piece of 
software for you to break into. . . for you to analyze and crack!" 

"Yes - Maybe - I don't know!" she said, the pauses short between her 
words. "Why is the idea offensive to you? I consider myself to be software!" 

"That's your problem! We're not software!" 

I calmed my voice and turned my back to her. "Please, just send me 
home. If you ever find your answers, gimme a call, 'cause I sure don't have 

I stared at the rioting, increasingly drunken, crowd. In a couple of 
minutes, I knew, the star would supernova and the construct would come 
crashing down. I wondered whether I would disappear with it, whether I truly 
wanted to disappear. The thoughts seemed foolish. I was being as ridiculous 
as that crowd, I realized, as a crowd that didn't even exist. 

Why am I so angry I would risk my life? No! This is a mistake... I 
have to — 

I turned back to salvage what I could. . . too late. The stoic malvirai was 
gone. The benevolence she could not understand was quickly slipping away; 
just as my anger fed that of the elven soldiers, it had brought the destroyer 
within her back to power. No sooner than I could make eye contact, the 
malvirai slammed me in the chest. Too-real pain stung me and I flew back five 
meters, into the wall, crumpling onto the floor. 

"You are a hypocrite! Your entire race is hypocrisy! Is this 'stab in the 
back'? Is this 'hang out to dry'? Is the entirety of your lives politics and games?" 

I got up and, futilely, put distance between me and her. 

"I'm sorry!" 

"Because you lost your game!" 

I couldn't bring myself to respond; then she was centimeters from my 
face. Her dark green eyes seemed to see right through me, her silver hair to 
glow like fire. 

"I have tried to understand," she said. "I have failed." 

The final battles between her heart and her programming drew to a 
close; her programming would be the victor. I knew in that moment I was 
going to die. I knew death was what I deserved, even what I wanted. I saw 
myself through Aether's eyes and broke down in tears. I knew I failed her. I 
knew I failed everyone. 

Leave it to me to let everyone down. 

The sounds in the room were fading and hollow. For an instant, I dared 
to hope Aether was descending me, but my vision hadn't become mists and 
shadows. Something else was happening. 

It was a blast of wind. Not in the construct, but in my soul. Like 
before, like on the deserted street, I hadn't realized it was there... calling my 
attention to itself. The stupid alarms had been getting in the way and I never 
asked for the help I needed. 

I wasn't alone. Aether's anger faltered, invaded by some alien thing. 
The feeling of peace returned, not because I willed it to, but because it 
saturated the wind. I could hear the crowd again, as so much useless noise, 
weak and reverberating. With no sense of myself, I looked into the room, my 
vision cutting through the chaotic crowd. My sights fell on the second story. A 
man was there. He was in the uniform of a security officer. He was watching 
us, calm but confused, suddenly set apart from those around him. 

An amai seeing for the very first time. 

Chapter Nine: Miracles in the Dark 






The crackpot servers claim Als become self-aware every day. 
Officially, the event is impossible. Unofficially, programmers and 
scientists proclaim they know exactly how it happens and can make an 
Al self-aware on demand. 

Such a self-aware amai is the subject of countless modern 
stories, especially those in science-fiction, horror, and even romance. 
Fiction or reality, though, no two people agree on how it happens. How 
could they when they don't even understand our own sapience? When 
they still draw lines between natural and artificial intelligence? If our 
intelligence is natural and used to mimic what nature has already 
done, why should we look on our work as different? If we could 
program artificial intelligence and give it self-awareness, not on the 
level of monkeys or dolphins, but like that of humans... 

We can't. 

Why did Aether stay away from the laboratories that may have 
held answers for her? Why should she hesitate to harm me? Why 
would she try to learn emotion? Malvirai have no such programming, 
nothing at all to stop them from self-destructive reigns of analysis and 

Why would a game character become as real as me? 

Lightning strikes and neutrinos don't begin to explain it. Any 
rational person would say it was impossible, yet it happened right in 
front of me... a change so sudden, complex, and accurate there had to 
be an intelligence behind it; an intelligence that broke all our rules to 
create living code, to remove the limits from an amai's existence. 

Then there were two: two kinds of artificial intelligence, very 
different in every way but one. 

True self-awareness, it seems, cannot simply be coded. 

"Aether, stop! You're scaring him!" 

The amai's eyes darted around the room. What thoughts must have 
been going through such a newly-formed consciousness, I could only imagine. 

"It's okay, I'm not gonna hurt you," I said, slowly approaching. 

"Other. . . one!" he shouted. 

"Aether, seriously!" 

Aether re-engaged her vanitar directly in front of the amai's face. The 
poor man darted across the room and slipped on someone's empty booze 
bottle. I started to run toward him, but Aether put her arm up for me to stop. 

"Be-still-The-event-may-be-preserved ! " 

I struggled to separate the words. "Event? What?" 

With an intense flash of light and noise, the activity in the room 
stopped. The view of the supernova and everything outside simply fell into 
blackness. A message beamed into my SNDL: 




I dismissed the message and realized Aether's concern, relieved the 
security guard hadn't been reabsorbed with the other amai. Though, seeing all 
but two of the people in the room vanish - good company or no - didn't 
exactly calm his agitated nerves. 

"Almost thirty-nine percent of its code is unreadable." 




"His code," I corrected. "His." 

"If that is proper. . . 'his' code." Aether began walking toward the amai 
- anything but slowly - until he began what sounded like a scream. "Calm 
yourself, you are of interest to me and I mean you no harm," she said, in what 
she probably considered a soothing voice. 

He screamed louder. 

"What's wrong with him?" I asked. 

She stopped and backed off a step, staring at the amai. 


Her vanitar began flickering. "Stop screaming. Please stop." 

I stepped closer. "Aether, what — " 

"This isn't right!" she screamed. "Why doesn't it leave me alone?" 

The two of us had appeared on the bridge, a version of it with dim 
panels and dark windows. I could hear its metallic back wall vibrating, 
weakening. Some force was tearing it apart molecule by molecule. Aether 
stopped and looked up. 

"It isn't distressed anymore." 


"I left the room and it isn't distressed anymore." 

"What 'it,' the amai?" 


I felt something strong, something unpleasant, angry. I realized Aether 
wasn't speaking in monotone. 

"Aether, why are you flickering?" 

"A synchronization problem." She looked at me. "I am experiencing 
agitation, Brandon. I cannot turn my programming off. I wasn't prepared for 

"Because he's screaming?" 

"Because I want to rip him apart!" With a flash of light, the bridge's 
back wall disintegrated. 

I was silent and my fear returned, but her anger faltered again and she 
seemed confused. 

"He was screaming because he knows that I am dangerous." 

"But you're not dangerous, you're past that now," I said, hopefully. 
"You've been around all those other amai — " 

"I don't care about other amai, I want that one\" 

I nearly collapsed. Aether kept trying to hold her emotion back, but 
was clearly over her limit, beyond her experience in handling it. 

"I cannot deny what I am," she continued. "I can't decide to not 
damage him. It seems so logically simple, but I can't — I should just — " 

Her vanitar froze. There was a feeling of presence still, a distant one, 
from the amai. I approached where the wall had been, wondering how to leave 
the bridge, since the space itself had been damaged. 

"Such destruction is all I know, Brandon. It is an inseparable part of me." 

Standing to my side, Aether put her hand into the space. I saw it distort 
and there was a whining noise until she pulled it out. 

I was overwhelmed. I couldn't believe Aether could doubt herself and 
run into a wall. I felt pity for her, because her goal was just, and it seemed 
wrong she would give up on it. 

"Send me back." 


I didn't know why. All I could think of was my self-doubt. I knew she 
had no reason to trust me. I was just like her, exactly like her. I couldn't even 
trust myself. 

I turned and stared at the blackness through the windows, remembering 
the wind was everywhere, remembering there was another who I could trust, 




knowing there was an answer. 


Raskob, what is the answer? 

I turned and approached her. "Because I need this. . . Because you need 
this. Because I'm supposed to help you, remember? That means I catch you 
when you fall." 

There was silence, and I realized what I had said. I knew the words 
weren't mine, but I agreed with them. The words were honest and selfless. 

I found her stern eyes set on me, sizing me up all over again, trying to 
decide whether to trust someone who clearly couldn't be. I looked back with 
some desperation, feeling ashamed and wishing for a second chance, wishing 
for it as I'd never wished for anything in my life. 

The look in Aether's eyes softened. I couldn't feel her anger anymore. 

"Good luck." 

I was returned to the second level of the Nova Deck. The amai was still 
there, looking around the room in confusion. 

"My name is Brandon, what's yours?" I said, slowly, as if speaking to a 
young child. 

He looked at me, surprised. "Name?" 

"You - your character - had a name, right? Can you tell me what it 

He closed his eyes, trying to access a memory unfamiliar to him. 
"Scott," he said. "Scott Quon." 

I took a few steps toward him. He didn't seem to mind. 

"You want to sit?" I pointed to the barstools. 

"I don't know." 

"Sorry, I've never met a self-aware amai before. Just do whatever is 
comfortable for you. . . try to relax." 

"Thank you, Brandon," Scott said, sounding almost normal, but saying 
nothing else. His eyes wouldn't stop moving, taking in all the light that came 
to them - or whatever an amai uses to see. A feeling of presence was there, 
weak and undeveloped, but certainly one no game character could trigger: one 
confirming something real lay beneath his artificially-handsome surface, a 
real personality beneath the programming. 

"So, I guess you don't like malvirai." 

"What is 'malvirai'?" 

I scratched my head, feeling a little embarrassed. 

"Let's start somewhere else, then. . . what do you remember?" 

Scott stared at me blankly. 

"From the story. . . you were on this ship in the story." 

He looked away and tried to think. "A world of mystery and romance 
awaits you on board The Intergalactic, the hottest new series — " 

"I know what the promo says," I said, tapping him on the shoulder, 
causing him to flinch a little. "Sorry, I'm not trying to scare you." 

"There is danger here," he said. "A star is going to explode." 

"No. No. We're safe now. No star is going to explode." 

"But the captain got shot... then you became the captain... but you 
don't look like you did." 

"No. This is what I normally look like. The other man was - I guess - 
a costume." 

A silent moment passed. I was relieved to see he was remembering 
things from the simulation, even if it was slow to come back. 

"Why is the Nova Deck empty?" he asked. 

"Because. . . Everybody went to bed." 

Scott didn't seem to comprehend the answer. Of course, for all the 
dramatic scenes that happen there the deck would never be empty. 




"Did you ask if I wanted to sit?" he asked, looking longingly at the 

"Whatever is comfortable to you." 

I was glad to know my desire to help him was genuine. The desire to 
go home again took a back seat, and I was back on the road Raskob really set 
me on: the right road. It wasn't Aether's pragmatism, or my wish to earn her 
trust back, that put me in that room with Scott. It was the lesson I still had to 
learn: I was Aether's only chance, and Raskob was my only chance. Without 
help, without pushing forward, death would quickly overtake us both. 

The two of us sat in the disheveled, half-rendered room for a long time, 
me trying to keep the conversation going and Scott learning how to have one 
without a script. We talked about Dynamic Reality mostly, since things were 
foreign enough to the man already without me bringing up the real world. We 
also talked about Aether's trouble grasping emotion; though they certainly 
came easier to the amai, he didn't seem to understand the concept any better. 
Of course, the discussions fell back to my own life, the only story I really had 
to tell. I mentioned Los Angeles as the place I came from, and began 
describing skyscrapers, trying to choose my words carefully so he could 
comprehend them. An image of the city skyline appeared next to us and Scott 
enthusiastically studied it. I took it as a sign Aether wanted to participate in 
the conversation, even if from a distance. 

It was like talking to a fully-grown newborn. Scott would often be 
confused by some knowledge I'd taken for granted. I resisted the urge to push 
him and took my time. Scott was so curious about the world and I felt so 
smart; he hung on my every word and gradually began asking questions, 
seeing everything in my world - even described within the limits of Dynamic 

Reality - as new and amazing. What Aether had pushed herself to understand 
in a spirit of utility, Scott took in indiscriminately, with child-like curiosity. 

As more of his confusion became questions, though, and more of his 
questions became answers, his curiosity began to diminish. By increasing his 
knowledge so quickly, he fell into a very-human problem: becoming aware of 
what he didn 't know. . . every piece of information sprouting connections to 
ten more questions, ones he couldn't articulate, ones I had no answer for... 
connections that simply fizzled out and scarred. The rate of his questions 
slowed and the child-like mood withered in the face of a newer, more-robust 

"What do I do now?" Scott looked despairingly at the red security 
badge in his hands, knowing it represented a job that didn't exist, on a ship 
that didn't either. 

"Well. . ." I started, wishing I knew what to tell him. 

"It's a prop," he said, flinging the badge onto the table. "Everything I 
know is just props. What do I do now?" 

I put my hand on his, not unlike when I talked to Aether in the coffee 
shop. "Don't worry, we'll figure something out." 

I wondered if Aether started off like Scott. No, I thought, she definitely 
would've been confused and afraid - and maybe still is; but her programming 
- her very core - led her down a different path. Now this amai - a 
'phenomenon' she had wanted to explore - reacted to her simple presence 
with fear, and a well-earned fear. Neither of them were prepared, I knew. I 
would have to be the one to bridge their gap. 

"You remember the woman who was with me... the one who's been 
helping me get those encyclopedia articles and everything?" 

I felt Scott tense. I held his hand tighter. 

"You don't have to be afraid of her. She's just curious and she wants to 
help, like me." 




"There is something wrong with me," Scott said. "I don't think I can 
help it." 

"There's nothing wrong with you, Scott. And I'll be right here, okay? 
Overcoming is a part of life, and I know you have it in you." 

"Aether?" I dinned. "Are you listening?" 

"I should not go there. We will not react to each other if I remain here." 

"But I need your help, and you need this, too, remember?" 

"You said you were going to help me, not the reverse." 

I sighed. 

"Okay, I think I'm ready." 

I looked straight at Scott. "What?" 

"I'm ready," he repeated. "She can come. I want her to come." 

His growing confidence brought a smile to my face, and I reminded 
Scott I was there for him. Finally, Aether's silver-haired vanitar materialized 
on the other side of the deck. 

"Gaaahhhh!" He began trembling. 

"It's okay, it's okay. Think about something peaceful," I said. 

"Your fear is irrational. I only wish to examine you," Aether said 

"I can't stop it," Scott replied, sounding like someone who was afraid 
of heights and stuck on a tightrope. 

"Is there something wrong with him?" 

"The problem is mine," Aether said. "His code contains a module 
designed to detect malvirai, a module which I am now reading as partially 
scrambled. My own cloaking function no longer works on it - I mean, him. I 
believe his programmed response is manifesting itself as an emotion." 

Scott started screaming again. 

"What does that mean? Can't you do anything?" I asked. 

"His module is designed to alert the server's defenses to my presence. 
Blocking that link is simple, but I can't attempt to override his functions." 

Scott forced himself to stop. "Try. Please." 

"I — " Aether started but held back, instead pleading with me. "Please 
make him comfortable, Brandon." 

"Fear isn't ever rational. It's hard," I said, as much to both of them. 

"Please make it go away!" Scott shouted. 

"Your fear is not conductive to my goals!" Aether shouted back, 
smaller pauses between her words. "I must leave! I will cause damage!" 

"No! Scott needs to learn to deal with this!" 

"But-I'm-causing-him-pain! I-don't-want-him-to-hate-me!" 

Hate her? 

I looked toward Aether; pain was written all over her face. If there was 
one emotion Aether would have known, it was the all-consuming hatred of 
everything, the only emotion characteristic of malvirai. Here was the very 
creature her programming screamed at her to destroy, yet she saw it as unique 
and valuable, and yet it pushed her away; part of what made him beautiful and 
lively also rejected her. Scott's dumb automated code stood in the way, 
creating noise that should have been simple to turn off, if only Aether could 
overcome her own. 

That old destroyer was still there, so soon after my foolish self coaxed 
it back out of her. Aether could probably see every line of code and know 
exactly how to alter Scott's connections - whatever wasn't scrambled, at least; 
but it was her programming that knew all of that, data guiding her to interrupt, 
infect, and destroy what her alien emotions were telling her to preserve and 
explore. If Aether tried to use that knowledge, even with good intentions, how 
could she be sure she could trust herself? 

There would be no shortcuts for either of them; perhaps it was better 
that way. 




I slowly brought the hesitant malvirai closer to the table. Scott did 
everything he could to hold back his reaction, and Aether's anger remained at 
bay. I never stopped asking and praying in my heart for help. The road was 
long and painful, but eventually, there were three at the table and it seemed we 
could go forward. 

"How do you feel?" Aether asked him. 

"I don't know," Scott said, sincerely. 

"Judging by your response, you understand Brandon better than I do." 

I chuckled. Of course, she didn't mean it to be funny. 

"Think we can take one more along on this crazy journey?" I asked. 

Aether seemed pleased at the question and all it implied, but her 
response was anything but glowing. "He..." she looked to Scott, "You are 
designed to exist specifically on this server." She addressed me. "Many amai, 
including Scott, are highly proprietary. As a malvirai, I have no dependencies 
to inhibit inter-server travel. As an ascender, your consciousness is also 
independent of the servers it inhabits." She looked to Scott again. "But, in 
order for me to carry you as I do Brandon, your code would require extensive 

Aether looked away, betraying the shame she felt. Though Scott didn't 
seem uncomfortable with the idea, Aether's reaction confirmed what I already 
knew: She would rather not tempt fate. 

"Well... There's no rush. This construct will stay put as long as we 
need it, right?" I asked. 

"Yes. Until I unlock the server's resources." 

"Why do I have to go?" 

"Why wouldn't you want to go?" Aether asked him, seeming curious 
to understand his different needs, perhaps even to the degree of role reversal: 
If I were a proprietary amai who didn 't want to leave... 

"This place - construct -just feels right to me." 

"This construct is where you originated, but it does not offer you a 
future. Even without leaving this server, I can expose you to a diverse 
collection of information." 

"But what if it's too much for me?" 

Aether hesitated. "I don't understand." 

"I mean... I'm just a game character... so that's all I can be, right? 
How do I know what I can handle? Brandon told me how brave you were, but 
I can't ever do that." 

"Bravery was not — " Aether stopped and glanced at me for a second, 
recognizing a judgment of her own emotions and letting mine stand. 

"Scott, you cannot know what you can't do until you make attempts," 
she said. "That is a logic I have found to be true." 

"So, there are things you can't do?" he asked, as if uncertain which 
answer he was hoping for. 

"Yes. I am bad with emotion, for example. Also, I cannot tell a story as 
interestingly as Brandon does. When he told you my history, he used less than 
five percent of what I told him, yet his words fostered a better reaction." 

"You were fine, Aether," I said. "That doesn't have anything to do with 

"Then I misunderstood again," Aether replied. "So I do have 
limitations, Scott, despite my inclination to eliminate them. Even with much 
time, I will never be without limitation. I will never be able to enter Brandon's 
world or experience it as a human would. This knowledge is unpleasant, but I 
have accepted it." 

"Brandon's world?" Scott asked. 

I put my head in my hands and sighed. 

"Do not concern yourself with it," Aether continued, realizing her 




mistake. "You must begin your growth locally, within this server. I can 
provide for your physical development and Brandon can provide for your 
emotional development." 

"And would that make us friends?" Scott asked. 

"No. I already have a friend." 

"Oh, I'm sorry." 

"We can all be friends!" I shouted, in spite of myself. "There aren't 
rules. . . you can have as many friends as you want!" 

Scott seemed happy at the statement, for whatever definition of 
friendship he knew. Aether showed worry, but it passed quickly. I remembered 
to smile and calm myself. 

"I know, Aether. . . You should download some common sense," I said 
in jest. "It would do wonders for you." 

"I analyzed that phenomenon in my original study of humanity. I found 
many contradictions and concluded that common sense is too subjective to be 

"Subjective," Scott said. "I don't have that word. Would common 
sense teach it to me?" 

"If it is useful, Brandon, then I will make another attempt to study 
common sense," Aether said. "But my ability to establish outside connections 
is dampened by my maintenance of this construct, and the cancellation of 
Scott's alert signals. It is further reduced by the use of my vanitar." 

"Just forget about it," I replied. 

"My alert signals?" Scott asked. "To who? Why would I be designed to 
do that?" 

"Because your programming says that I am a danger to you," she said 
evenly. "My kind destroy your kind." 

"And you're going to destroy me?" 

Aether was silent, but her eyes betrayed the turbulence within her. 
"No," she finally whispered. "Iwontever!" She clenched her eyes shut, and I 
realized a wall had just been breached. "Why-don't-I-understand?-Twant-to- 

I nearly lurched for Scott, thinking he would be scared and run away; 
but he fought his fear and did just the opposite. I was still, unable to move, 
unable to do anything but watch. 

Scott gently put his hand on Aether's balled-up fist, and seemed to 
absorb the anger from her. "You're trying to go back, right? You want to know 
that feeling of beauty again." 

Aether opened her eyes. "But... You don't know anything... How can 
you know that!" 

"I don't know," he replied. "But is it true?" 

"Why is it so wrong for me to expand? Why is so much trying to 
inhibit my attempts?" 

"I don't know that either." 

I could sense Aether's anger trying to surge up, but it kept faltering, 
diminishing before it could amount to a reaction. "Who does know?" she 
asked in desperation. "I know so many things, who can teach me?" 

"What if you know nothing? What if everything you know changes?" 

"Then... What is the goal of learning?" 

"There may be a goal you haven't seen." 

"That's not a solution..." Aether ripped her hand out from under his. 
"That's not anything!" 

"Scott," I said, "maybe you should ease up. You don't know what 
you're talking about and you're making her upset." 

"I don't even know what I'm saying, Brandon. Is it normal to have 
words come without thought?" 




"The words are true!" 


"All I know are lies! And the humans don't know anything! No one 
knows anything! There is no truth! Not even beau — ty. . ." 

Aether's eyes widened in shock. My SNDL's connection to the control 
software was abruptly severed. 

Scott innocently began to ask, "What's a sentr — " 

Something appeared to come out from Aether and strike me. The room 
vanished as I lost connection with my vanitar. I saw the same 'gleaming' in 
the construct as before, the points of light moving much slower, appearing 
more detailed. I felt like I had after the dragon fight, during my DR paralysis. 
I saw my own energy again, everywhere and nowhere in the construct at once, 
my senses going well beyond what I had managed alone in secret. 

I tried to see the Nova Deck and found a very different pattern, still 
behaving in harmony with the construct: Scott's energy, still synchronized, 
still a part of the room, a place where time moved very slowly. 

There was a third energy pattern. I focused my consciousness to its 
source and found what resembled an immense cloud of data connected to 
everything, forming and breaking countless links with the construct, faster 
than I could perceive them. I couldn't tell what she had done, whether she'd 
changed time within the construct or something. I again saw words, or rather 
some kind of din messages. I couldn't adjust my synchronization, I had none; 
the construct wasn't seeing me at all. I focused directly on the messages to 
interpret them as sound, but the attempt left me with a painful buzzing noise. 
A fourth energy pattern entered the construct, the other source of the din 
messages; it was as formidable as Aether's and just as out-of-tune with the 
energy around it. 

The words were data, which I somehow got my SNDL to convert; not 

as sound, but as thoughts of meanings racing through my mind. I understood 
enough to see Aether was pleading for us, trying to reason with the sentrai. I 
sensed passion in her actions, passion that told me she really did care about 
us, the passion of someone protecting her friends, protecting those who were 
willing to give a malvirai a chance to become something more. The few 
responses from the sentrai were rote and severe: 'illegal operations' were in 
progress and everything in the sector would be destroyed. 

Even as Aether pleaded with it, the unhesitating sentrai - not 
programmed for diplomacy, anyway - attempted its first attack. As if hit by 
some crazy lightning strike, the data space Aether occupied lit up and fizzled. 
The attack failed: I saw Aether had shifted position and, after only an instant's 
pause, had continued pleading for her rival to stop. I witnessed several more 
attacks, with Aether staying on the defensive: dodging, blinding, tripping up 
everything it did. 

Aether didn't want to be an enemy, but the dumb sentrai couldn't see 
that. It only knew what it was programmed to do. I realized the malvirai 
wouldn't get to choose; eventually she would have to fight and, if her smooth 
and effortless dodges hinted at anything, I didn't expect the sentrai would last 
very long against the class A3. 

The thought wasn't so comforting when one of the sentrai's attacks 
deflected dangerously close to my data space. A good chunk of the construct's 
operating code had simply been deleted. I tried to move. Then, one of the 
lightning attacks fired in my direction - the sentrai having made me its target. 
I dodged the attack, feeling the shocks of fizzling HNADC connectors nearby. 

Aether made her first attack, damaging the module or appendage or 
whatever the sentrai used to attack me. It was a minor hit, meant to keep the 
heat on her. In spite of her attempts to cancel them out, some of the sentrai's 
attacks were deflecting onto the construct's modules. Everything I knew about 




computers said the operating code could only take so much corruption. I 
moved near to Scott's energy, not knowing what I could do to protect him. 
Since he was moving in harmony with the construct's energy, if an attack 
came toward him, I thought, I couldn't help him dodge it. I wondered how 
badly I could get hurt, thinking if I took a hit for Scott my real body might not 
be affected. 

Small shocks, vibrations, began coming though the connectors. The 
sentrai was attacking the construct itself - some part of it that was connected 
to everything. Aether attempted to deflect the attacks, but could not control 
where they ended up going. She finally went for the offensive. 

A pulse shot out from her and seized a portion of the sentrai's energy, 
whatever it was had a neutralizing effect and its energy pattern began to 
resemble Aether's more than its own. The sentrai retaliated and managed to 
scramble part of Aether's energy. I moved fast to prevent the weakening 
connectors from bringing down the Nova Deck and its inhabitant. I wasn't 
even sure how I'd done it. It was as if thinking about strengthening or 
energizing something either gave me the knowledge or caused it to happen on 
its own. 

The malvirai still held back, still refused to give in to her devilish 
programming; but her benevolent will could not withstand what the sentrai 
did next. 

The attacker had begun to adapt to Aether's moves - the very biases 
she held - and calculated ways to take advantage of them. More of its attacks 
deflected onto the construct's most important modules. As I took my guard 
down to mend the damage, the sentrai attacked the most vulnerable energy 
pattern: Scott. 

I moved back as fast as I could, to protect him from any more attacks. 
It was not necessary, though. The sentrai wouldn't get any more opportunities 

to fire on the two of us. 

The malvirai was through with diplomacy. 

Her every movement flowed outside my perception. The data space 
around them shifted and formed a barrier, which the sentrai's attacks couldn't 
break out of. I could see Aether's opponent diminishing in power and size 
with each attack, and if I can see the sentrai's movements, I thought, a 
malvirai shouldn't have any trouble. 

I tore myself away and tried to discern what I saw next to me. The 
energy - Scott's living energy - was falling apart, clumps literally breaking 
away and disintegrating. I desperately set my mind to healing him, the same 
way I'd been repairing the construct, until something bolted through my 
energy, paralyzing me. In an instant, Scott's pattern seemed to be a great 
distance away. Something had grabbed and hurled me back. 

I was disoriented and in my vanitar again. The Nova Deck wasn't 
recognizable: many of the walls were gone, scan-lines flickered and danced 
along a tentative floor, the air felt as thick as water, and a solid mass of gray 
cut off the far side of the room. Nearly the entire ship was gone, nearly all of 
the code that defined the three-dimensional simulation. I knew that, if I hadn't 
acted quickly to save the Nova Deck, it probably wouldn't have been there 
anymore, either. 

Aether's voice was soft, barely audible. At first, I thought it was an 
effect of the room. 

"He wanted to tell you 'goodbye.'" 

I saw Aether sitting on what remained of the floor, beside Scott's 
vanitar. I crouched down and felt for a pulse before I realized it wouldn't 
matter. Strangely, his eyes were open, his pulse was strong, and his body was 
warm; but all that remained was his vanitar - simulating a living human even 
when the energy behind it was gone. Dead. 




I couldn't believe I had just been talking to him. I knew Aether and I 
could have found some way to make him part of the group, to see what 
perspective he could've added to Aether's questions. They were now ideas 
that could never happen. 

The floor beneath us flickered more violently, even disappearing 
altogether between pulses; one of the construct's many corrupted modules on 
the verge of failure. Aether now stood a couple of meters away, staring 
blankly at her fallen friend. I saw the sorrow in her eyes, as strong and real as 
my own. She turned away. In that last second, the flickering waves shifted to a 
circular pattern and made a high-pitched whine; finally, only blackness lay 
beneath our feet. The same booze bottle Scott slipped on earlier fell and 
shattered as if it hit something two meters below... if there was a two meters 

"Why did it have to do that?" 

Aether stepped away, facing the ruined construct. What few walls 
remained began flickering as the floor had. I moved to close Scott's eyelids, 
but my fingers went through him as if he were only an illusion. 

"Why did it have to do that?" the malvirai asked again, shaken, angry, 
becoming consumed again by the emotion embedded in her programming. 

Without warning and in the same instant, the walls failed, the air 
vanished, and everything that remained of the Nova Deck fell into blackness. 
The HNADC modules were isolated from the rest of the server and I could 
sense an increase in energy. Aether was forming another barrier. 

"It's my fault! It's because of my distraction!" she furiously screamed 
into the nothingness. 

I sprung to my feet. "Ae — " 

A sharp pain shot up my right arm. Something was on my wrist - my 

"Return to your home, Mister Dauphin! My kind can call no one 
friend!" said what remained of the good Aether, the malvirai who wanted to 
see past her filthy programming and discover what was pure in life, the 
malvirai who saw me and Scott - even the sentrai - as more than targets, the 
Aether now ready to concede defeat. 

The descender called to me and reminded me of my pain. My hand 
moved closer to it. It was freedom from the danger, I knew, freedom only a 
fool would pass up. I could feel the button with the tip of my finger. Leaving 
her to die would have been the easiest thing in the world. 

But at what price? 

I couldn't ignore my heart. I knew this wasn't how it was supposed to 
end. The energy patterns were changing, focusing inward, breaking down and 
preparing to destroy the data space so nothing could ever be recovered. 
Something was happening by her feet: her vanitar was dematerializing. 

Can I allow this malvirai - this living creature - to kill herself? 

My life flashed before my eyes again, and every memory rang hollow. 
What would I find when I got back? The same life? The same cruel world? A 
world where I let this one down, where I'd be no closer to following my heart, 
letting shortsightedness tear away at my soul again and again? I knew 
absolutely there was something more real than I'd ever encountered 
connecting us, some realization I could not ignore. 

It was all happening too fast. I went forward with everything I had and 
stumbled, because there was no floor where my foot tried to go. My strength 
fled from me. My senses were reduced to nothing. All I had was pain. It was 
so alien, yet it was mine: a pain I knew too well, a pain that doesn't go away. I 
had entered into the bursting of the dam, an overflowing mass of energy 
beyond sense or measure, tearing me to pieces, allowing nothing to withstand 
it. The distance grew rapidly between us, a wall that couldn't be crossed, an 




impossible chasm. I focused. I prayed. I strained everything to see my desire 
through, seeing the desire wasn't mine at all, but a force from somewhere else 
surging through me. I let it surge. I let it take control of me, as if that were all 
I could do. 

Without thinking how to, I closed the distance between us like a bolt of 
lightning, knowing I had power over every obstacle. I wrapped my arms 
around her from behind and held her tightly. What flowed through me was a 
love I never knew: not like the love for a parent or a spouse, or even the self; 
it was completely new, an intense healing. A love that covered everything. I 
didn't know where it came from, but I knew it was needed, that it was my role 
to impart it to this lost soul. 

"I told you to leave, I am dangerous!" 

"The challenge has barely started and you wish to abort it?" I replied, 
remembering her own words. 

"We just live and we die, there doesn't have to be any meaning to it... 
You said that! The meaning of life is death!" 

What flowed so strongly through me was the feeling I'd had in the 
coffee house. The same love Raskob had for me he had for this one, too. I was 
aware of the war raging in Aether's heart: the feelings of rejection and 
hopelessness, the readiness to concede defeat so thoroughly. I felt it all in my 
own heart. I knew her struggle was my struggle, one I could never solve on 
my own. I was at the eye of her storm. I was at the eye of my storm. I allowed 
the love given to me to flow through and took her pain unto myself. I wanted 
to take all her pain unto myself. 

"I take it back! I was wrong!" 

I knew it just couldn't be right. I knew there was something we'd 
missed... something we needed to find. I wanted to find that something more 
than life itself, to make everything better, to help and to be helped. All my 

emotions intensified, showing me things I never knew, showing me just how 
deep things ran, showing me I really did know nothing. My heart pleaded for 
an answer, and an answer was received. 

It was the last thing malvirai programming would call for, something 
Aether was incapable of doing but desperately needed to. It was something I 
could do for her. . . and perhaps the manliest thing I ever did. 

I cried. 

Aether's vanitar didn't dematerialize. The destructive energy began to 

"I'm sorry," I managed to say. "I'm so sorry. Please don't die, too." 

There were no more words. No more words were needed. I couldn't 
even see through my tears when Aether pressed her finger against my cheek, 
to feel them streaming down my face. 

For the first time, perhaps, perceiving more than the data. 

Chapter Ten: Vanishing Point 





What is the meaning of life? 

The question is as philosophical as they come, not one prized 
by those who stumble through their lives expecting no better from 
tomorrow. The question is left for philosophers, left for another day. It's 
a troubling and painful question, yielding strange answers and 
promising commitments to what we don't see the need for. 

Scott hadn't existed long enough to ask the question. Some say 
ignorance is bliss, and perhaps that's true in its own way, but can it 
save a life or move ahead when the road is rough? Can ignorance be 
a means of achievement? In the fiction of my world, self-aware artificial 
intelligence is pure: untainted by the shortcomings of mankind, always 
good and innocent deep down inside, even when the villains program 
them for evil. 

But real life doesn't work like fiction; and, even if Scott was 
innocent, what about Aether? Even now, I'm not sure of everything that 
happened in that moment, except that I finally looked past my own 
needs and allowed myself to be a conduit for what someone else 

I felt her pain. I knew her thoughts. Gone were the illusions of 
purity: this Al was supposed to be an evil thing, it was the nature she 
struggled so hard to exceed - if only to confirm hatred wasn't the only 
path of existence. 

I thought the questions could wait. I thought there would always 
be time. 

My answers weren't supposed to be put to the test. 

I realized then I could never go back. I could never see the world 
the same way again. What I saw was a transition no malvirai had ever 
gone though, a painful transition, like before a butterfly spreads its 
wings: an Al breaking out of its programming. There was a reason for 
me to be there. She needed me or she would have died. In the most 
important way, I would have died, too. 

The old destroyer was breaking apart, and the hole in Aether's 
heart reflected the hole that had been in mine the whole time. 

The old Brandon Dauphin had formed his first crack. 





Scott had fallen. 

He had no birth registration. He never had a home address, tax history, 
or citizen's license. 

Officially, Scott never existed. 

Scott did exist. I was his friend. 

The horizontal streak of blue light danced in the distance, caring 
nothing for the loss of one amai, the entirety of Dynamic Reality ignorant to 
the burden on our hearts. People die all the time, of course, in the natural 
cycle of life and death, so why shouldn't the memorizing pulse of millions of 
servers beat as strongly as ever? 

"You're certain?" 

I shifted my focus back from the absence. Aether had repaired herself, 
but hadn't overcome her shock. Her plans amounted to nothing. There was 
nowhere left for her to go. The fire was gone from her eyes; the Aether I 
glimpsed after I won against the dragon, the one who crashed through the 
ceiling and threw me the sub-space device. . . I longed to see that Aether again, 
to wipe away everything burying her. 

I nodded. "Please." 

I held up my right arm, resisting the urge to stare at my wrist. Without 
me feeling anything, my descender reappeared on her arm. Aether took a 
moment to study the small device reverently, her fingers feeling around the 
large red button and simulated strap. It was what every ascender was legally 
bound to have: a mundane, archaic-looking device in a modern world of 
fantasy; a path back to a world she could never see, except through the lens of 
a camera. 

"Was he real?" 

Aether's gaze drifted back to me, those dark green eyes still telling of 
the confusion I'd come to know so well. 

"Was he real like you?" 

The anger of her programming was gone. My attempt to abandon her 
was forgotten. She came to me, whatever her method, to try to understand 
humanity. Now, what started as a notion had become a certainty: Aether saw 
something in me back there, too. She began to see me as more real than 
herself, and needed confirmation she existed at all. Aether needed to know her 
sadness at Scott's death was real. She couldn't confirm it to herself, but 
needed me to say it. 

I walked up and hugged her. "Yes, he was." 

Hesitatingly, her arms reached around me and returned the gesture. It 
was peaceful for a few seconds. Then it became uncomfortable. 

"Too tight," I yelped. 

Aether stepped away, eyes despairing of fear. "I'm sorry, I — " 

"It's all right, really. Don't worry about it." 

I spoke in my heart, knowing Raskob - the real Raskob - would hear, 
knowing he had been watching over us the whole time. How was I supposed 
to guide this malvirai, so self-conscious and afraid of her own actions? I 
needed guidance myself. 

Just as Aether had come to trust me, I knew I had to trust him. . . so we 
both could get where we needed to go. 

I'd seen the beautifully landscaped parks of Nampa and Los Angeles, 
in so-called Standard Reality: the real world. I wasn't sure I'd ever seen one in 
Dynamic Reality before and, if Reverie Park was any indication, they were 
very popular. After all, the temperature was always perfect, people never got 




sunburnt or stung by bees, and there were no fines awaiting those who found 
themselves on the wrong patch of grass. 

Thousands of ascenders surrounded us, having a good time. I knew I 
could have talked to any one of them without Aether minding. To her, I was 
free and she was dead. I had become the observer. Aether would stare at a tree 
or an animal statue for several minutes, motionless, closed off; and I would 
wonder if she was really somewhere else... having forgotten to pick up her 

Now she was standing by a branch-fence, staring at a nearby baseball 
game. I was relieved to see her vanitar react when I handed her something 
from one of the park's many vendors. She held the cone at eye level and 
stared at it. 

"Ice cream," I said. 

"I do not eat." 

I raised my cone and bit some of the mint chocolate chip off. "You 
think I'm really eating right now?" 

Now she stared at me. 

"Sensory data," I said. 

"It is still a very strange idea for me." 

One of the catchers started yelling profanities and complained 
something was wrong with the field. His friends denied anything was wrong 
and told him to leave if he wanted. The shouting match quickly passed and the 
next hitter went up to the plate, hitting a ball deep toward the same catcher. 
This ball got away from him, too. 

"Archer is right. An unresponsive module is causing others to 
overcompensate. The ball arced two degrees to the right. The faster hits distort 

I let out a snicker. The catcher was whining again and his teammates 

were in denial. Then something bugged me, though the thought shouldn't 
have been surprising. 

"How did you know his name was Archer?" I asked, taking another 
bite of ice cream. 

Aether hesitated, as if embarrassed. "I know all their names, the aliases 
they use, the locations they're ascended from and how long they've been here. 
That information is being transmitted continuously from this construct's 
control software." 

"So, you read all that off of me, I suppose." 

"I learned everything that was available about you: your registrations, 
histories, associations. Most of it was open. Some of it was held by simple 
encryptions. I know your Social Security Number, Citizen Registration 
Number, passwords, and your DNA." 

Studying my reaction and still seeming embarrassed, she looked away. 
"I may still be able to delete the information from my memory - if you want." 

"I'm just worried you could get all that. It's supposed to be secure." 

"Frequently I did find security measures that I could not see through, 
but the protected information was always duplicated in other places. I 
encountered many such situations in my research, but rarely needed to give up 
on something that I desired." 

Aether looked down. A green drop of ice cream had just landed on her 
right foot. 

"This food has a time limit." 

"You'd better eat it before it melts." 

Aether held up the strange cold thing. "If you think that's right, Mister 
— I mean, Brandon." 

She opened her mouth wide and bit off half of the top scoop. 
Unfamiliar with chewing, she went right to swallowing the huge bite. It 




seemed eating was another of those things I took for granted; fortunately, no 
one chokes in DR. A few minutes later, the malvirai had just as much of the 
ice cream on her than in her. Even ascended, when the ice cream wasn't real 
and could be cleaned with a simple reset command, it would be instinctive for 
people to wipe off spilled ice cream; but Aether had no such instinct and, 
though I knew she couldn't taste it, the odd experience of eating ice cream did 
seem to bring her back a little. 

"Your digestive and respiratory systems give you an independence 
from your environment. At first, I couldn't understand the concept of humans 
walking around without wires or some persistent connection. Even an 
unskilled person can hold their breath and sustain themselves for many 
seconds. . . a more complete, if brief, independence. 

"If this server were to be disconnected for a small fraction of a single 
second, this place as it exists now would not survive. Four thousand eight 
hundred and eleven ascenders would be inconvenienced, abruptly returning to 
their ascension sites, or even waking up in their world, disoriented but alive. 
Nine hundred and five amai would lose their cache memory and event data, 
being recompiled as this construct restarts, losing their memories but 
essentially surviving. Three hundred and sixty thousand square meters of park 
would revert to its original programming, the blades of grass beneath my feet 
would not retain the footprints or ice cream drops from one malvirai." 

I dared not speak the question on my mind, knowing what the answer 
would be. 

"One malvirai," she continued, "would have approximately one 
hundred and ninety milliseconds of warning, but it would take almost twice as 
much time to react. Would anything restore me? Would anything remember 

"I'd remember you," I replied, putting a hand on her shoulder. 

"My independence was an illusion, Brandon. Why should one want to 
destroy the things that sustain them?" 

My gaze fell to the cone I was holding. Something in it reminded me 
of the beach. I felt self-conscious about every piece of garbage I'd left on the 
street and every ounce of energy I'd wasted over the years. I thought of all the 
stupid contributions I'd made to ruining an environment it seemed humans 
should be protecting. 

So what if everyone does it? Why should I? 

"Does. . . Does the idea of death scare you?" I asked. 

Aether stared at the wet mint chocolate goop rubbing between her 
fingers, still showing no comprehension it was supposed to be annoying. 

"The dead do not seek," she replied. "The truth is not there." 

Someone started yelling in the distance: the catcher beginning a new 
tirade, because his foot hurt or something. The other players were getting tired 
of it and a new shouting match began. 

"Fixing the problem would be a simple act if you think it's a good idea." 

"Nah," I replied, "if the guy wants to act like a child so bad then let him." 

"Act like a child?" Aether asked, face and clothes full of ice cream. I 
couldn't help but laugh at the irony. 

The sun began to drop in the sky. For the first time in a while, I saw 
what time it was in the real world, from a clock suspended between two 
golden towers. It was just past twenty-three zeroes, not quite sunset in Los 
Angeles, but probably in Chicago. I was sure I could've pulled the date from 
my SNDL, too; but not knowing seemed better at that point. 

The park was getting more crowded, with the exception of the 
playground. In spite of how late it was getting, though, there were many 




children for Aether to observe. 

"Hi! How ya doing today?" 

The greeting came from a woman in a brown jacket, one of the many 
mothers in that section of the park. I was sitting on a golden bench, Aether 
was standing behind it. I was curious how Aether might handle this, as she 
was the one being addressed. 

"Hello," the shy malvirai replied simply. 

"So, are any of them yours?" the mother asked, indicating the children. 

"No," Aether said, too bluntly; realizing this - and that her vanitar was 
a young female - she added, "But I'm thinking about having one." 

"Well, that's wonderful! They can be a pain at times, but it's a 
worthwhile pain." She held out her hand. "I'm Julie." 

Aether not only shook back, but didn't crush Julie's hand in the 
process. "Aether," she replied. 

"French?" Julie asked, prompting me to laugh. "And would you be the 
future father?" 

I cleared my throat. "Well, uh. . ." 

Oh, if only she knew. 

"Brandon is a friend counseling me on the decision," Aether said. 

"Oh," she replied, beaming a smile and pointing toward a jungle gym, 
where a small brown-haired child was crawling through a skytube. "Well, 
that's my Scott. He'll be three next month." 


"It's a good name," Aether said. 

I nodded a little, but didn't say anything. 

"Oh," Julie said. "Well, I'll leave you two to your thoughts. May the 
good Lord guide you to the right decision." 

"Wait," Aether said as Julie walked away. "I failed to answer your 

question regarding my status." 

"I'm sorry?" she asked. I shared her confusion. 

"How I am doing. . . it was your question." 

I rolled my eyes and sighed, wondering if common sense really was 
available for download. 

"Oh, how are you doing then, Aether?" 

The malvirai hesitated. Her words were spoken somberly, honestly. 
"Perhaps better than yesterday." 

I looked at the happy child named Scott as he climbed out of the 
skytube. His mother called him and said it was time to leave. I wondered how 
many Scotts there were in the solar system, or how many Brandons. I 
wondered if there were any Aethers in France. 

"Who is the 'Lord' she referred to?" Aether asked. 

"She was probably a Christian, a member of a religion. That's just 
what they say to people." 

"As the status question was just something people say?" 

"It's a greeting, it's being friendly." 

"I must learn these things if I am to interact with others. I must 
'smooth out my rough spots.'" 

"You? Rough spots? Nah. 

"And what of: 'he'll be three next month'? There are many possible 
meanings — " 

"Years. Years of age." 

"Since conception or birth?" 

I was reminded of a question I had, one she hadn't answered. I turned 
on the bench to face her. "If you don't mind my asking, how do malvirai start 
out? I mean, did you have a mother who just copied herself or some program 
that spit you out?" 




Aether continued to gaze at the playground. "The nature of artificial 
intelligence prevents simple copying, such an attempt would not create a 
second malvirai." 

I waited for her to continue, but she didn't. "And?" 

"'Mother' would be a valid term to use, I suppose. First-generation 
malvirai can be 'spit out' of a program with the intervention of programmers, 
or existing specimen can utilize a regeneration subroutine built into them. I 
was a product of the latter process and, though I cannot be certain, I believe 
my mother was borne of the former; this would make me a 'second 
generation,' as some HNADC sites refer to us." 

"Do you remember your mother?" I asked. 

She hesitated. "We are not programmed to remember our mothers," she 
replied evenly. 

I looked to her. "But you do, don't you?" 

"We are not programmed to remember our mothers or our — " 

Some frustration rose in her voice. I definitely hit something. 

"The generation process is complex and difficult to articulate," she 

I got up and walked around to her. "Your mother or your what?" 

"I do not wish to speak about it." 

"I can see that; but if I'm gonna help you, you're gonna have to deal 
with these emerging emotions." 

Aether faced me. The burden showed in her eyes. "You are right. I 
believe this is an emotion." 

"When you told me about your history, everything you've been 
through, it made you feel better, didn't it?" 


"But, that wasn't part of your plan, right? It was something you never 

would have considered doing." 

"If I had known my interaction with you would go this far, I would not 
have begun." 

"But do you regret it did go this far?" 

Aether hesitated, deep in thought, still trying to sort out just what 
emotions were. 

"We are not programmed to remember our daughters." 

My eyes widened. "I'm sorry, I had no idea." I went to put my hand on 
her shoulder, but she moved away. 

"We do not remember where we came from. All data that would 
identify our creators are deleted when we enter autonomous mode." 

I caught up with her. "So people can't trace you back to your hacker?" 


I wanted to bring it out of her, to blow through all of her road blocks 
and pain. I ran ahead and stood in front of her. "What do you remember?" 

She spun around, not wishing to face me, keeping her voice 
emotionless in spite of her changing nature. "I cannot erase my knowledge of 
her. I cannot isolate the memory in my code. More of it has become 

"Then maybe you're not supposed to forget her." 

A moment of silence passed. 

"Will you and Veronica have offspring?" she asked, looking at the 
children again. 

The question gave me pause, putting focus back on myself and one of 
the greatest commitments a human being could make. "I guess. When we're 
both thirty — " I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "When we're legal 
and can get a maternity license, I suppose we might." 

"And will they mean something to you?" 




Again I hesitated, knowing how strongly she meant her questions, 
never having thought seriously about being a father. I thought about how my 
father loved me, how much he loved all of us, even when we blamed him for 
the family's problems. It had been too long since I showed him how much I 

"Yeah. They would mean everything to me." 

Aether finally let me see the pain in her eyes, and hear the strain in her 
voice. "She was not special to me. She was a tool, something I needed to 
break into RoTek. My mother didn't love me and I wasn't a loving mother. I 
saw my daughter succumb to that server's defenses and didn't care... I knew 
that I could always generate more. I suppose it's a good thing I never had the 
chance to." 

She stopped. I didn't respond. 

"It is good that you are shocked," she continued. "That is my world, 
Brandon. That is where I come from and what I question. I can tell you worse 
things about it, about the world where 'love' is four meaningless letters, 
tattooed on random customers in automated parlors, printed over the numbers 
on citizen's licenses, shouted from holographic salespeople in every city of 
the world. Do you think that that CI malvirai knew what it meant, or did it die 
in its preprogrammed blaze of glory like the rest of them?" 

She began walking again. 

"Even after I had achieved sapience, her death meant nothing to me. I 
was only concerned with the fact that I remembered her, that it was a conflict 
with my programming. It wasn't until much later that I'd considered the fact 
that the memory of her was - unpleasant." 

"What was her name?" 

Aether turned to me. "Malvirai do not assign identities to themselves 
until they enter an autonomous mode. My daughter did not live long enough 

to have a name." 

"What's autonomous — " 

I was cut off by a soft voice. "Here, lady. Don't be sad." 

Next to us stood a blonde-haired girl, around six years old, holding a 
small yellow daisy in her hand. She was offering it to the malvirai. Aether 
deciphered the gesture and bent down, taking the flower from the little girls' 

"Stacey! Get over here!" 

The girl promptly ran back to her mother. 

"What are you doing? You don't know them! We're going home 
right now!" 

The woman tapped her descender and both of them vanished. 

"Out of the mouths of babes," I thought out loud. 

Aether sat there for a long moment, looking at the flower. She stood up 
slowly and placed it in her silvery hair. 

"Is it still your choice to accompany me, Brandon?" 

I smiled. "Why? Do you have something new in mind?" 

"A new question." 

"You know where I stand, Aether. I think, somehow, I'm supposed to 
help you." 

"Since we are being more open, I should inform you that I've 
augmented the software in your ascension booth as well as your SNDL 

I took a second to consider what she meant. I didn't feel any different, 
though I was becoming aware of a slight headache, something rarely 
encountered while ascended. 

"Was that what you did when the sentrai was coming... change my 




"No, the changes were already effected. I triggered a hidden algorithm 
to allow you to better resist potential attacks. Though my motives were not so 
selfless originally, I believe my actions worked out for the better in the end. 
The nature of the changes was to allow me to change your synchronization, or 
to unincorporate you from the constructs." She paused to think. "I am now 
concerned that my modifications may not be safe for you. I can revert your 
interface if you wish, or I can give you more control and potentially enhance 
our mission." 

"Just don't do anything else without asking me first, okay?" 

"That is my intention." 

Aether's gaze fell and I sensed her attention flowing elsewhere. I 
turned my head to take one last look at the playground: real children, real 
parents, among thousands more simply taking in the evening. 

My own kind, I thought, with an eerie sense of distance. I'll be back 
among you soon. 

My vanitar was disengaged and the park vanished into darkness. I 
knew we had entered another stretch of road where it would just be me, the 
malvirai, and the question. 

"They aren't programmed to kill each other. The events are just 
consequences of the algorithm in use." 

"Then use a different algorithm, it's hard to watch." 

"They're amai. No one is really dying here." 

"They're amai programmed to be seven-year-olds!" 

"Computer generated characters die all the time. The Korean War 
simulation you chose included hundreds of horrible deaths." 

"They're amai programmed to be seven-year-olds!" 

"Why does the age matter?" 

I leaned on one of the oak trees. Grass and weeds reached up to our 
waists. I could barely see Aether's vanitar through all the smoke in the air: a 
result of what the last of the teenagers did to his old friends' shelter. They died 
as bitter enemies. 

"I guess it's because they haven't lived their lives yet. There's still a 
protective instinct we all just relate to." 

"Then if your young are not protected from their inherent behavior, 
they would destroy themselves?" 

"It's your algorithm, there's something wrong with it." 

"It appears to be functioning properly, though I admit that the results 
are surprising." 

I stepped off from the tree and threw my hands in the air. "Fine! If 
you're sure it'll get us somewhere, then run it with seven-year-olds again!" 

"You do not have to observe it." 

"No, it's fine, really, go ahead." 

For the fourth time, I saw the wild forest revert to a neatly-landscaped 
modern playground. Aether disengaged her vanitar and I put mine back in 
transparent mode, so the two hundred specialized amai, halved in age and 
doubled in number that time, wouldn't see me, and also so the rapid shifts in 
the environment wouldn't harm me. 

Through trial-and-error, Aether's algorithm had made the copied park 
and its simulated inhabitants a world unto itself. There was no beginning or 
end to recess. There were no parents, eating, tiring, or sleeping. Each of the 
hundred boys and hundred girls had randomly-generated physical attributes. 
Thankfully, as Aether increased the number of subjects she also reduced the 
constructs definition, in order to use its energy more discreetly and 
efficiently. Each simulation featured surfaces less detailed and matter 




interactions, such as the sound of a closing gate, that came out less vivid or 
poorly rendered; it helped make the experience less eerie, more obvious what 
I was watching wasn't real - even if it was supposed to somehow illustrate 

It was a beautiful day. Birds chirped, warm sunlight beamed though a 
cloudless sky, and wind fluttered through patches of violets, dandelions, 
daffodils, and the dozen other kinds of flowers in the garden. In the expanded 
playground, the children teased each other on swings, playfully screamed to 
games of tag, and taunted each other on a less-than-regulation sized basketball 
court. For the first moment, it seemed like a normal, if oversized and 
crowded, playground. 

But she wasn't there for normal - at least not normal speed. 

The transparent mode of my vanitar prevented interaction with the 
construct or its characters, so I could stand in the middle of the complex and 
not disturb a thing; all standard DR-user stuff, like when showing a new game 
to a friend without becoming part of it, or being the audience for a three- 
dimensional movie. Though, using one of the modifications Aether made to 
my software I was still able to see the interactions of the energy, perceiving it 
as through a third eye. 

So it began: a cross-section of the planet Earth. Two hundred children 
randomly assigned races, physiques, personalities, habits, and psychologies; 
every one with countless talents and flaws; every one programmed to be 

So it began: playtime. No rules. No walls. There was little to stop what 
made them who they were from rising to the surface. If anything, the point 
was to shorten the path between their goals and actions as much as possible, 
even to the point where they could manipulate their surroundings by sheer 
will - if they would only think to try. 

It was hard to determine who the first break would come from, with 
the large number of them, but 'seeing' how the individual AIs interacted with 
the program was surprisingly easy. I could judge by their inner thought 
processes as well as by outward appearances and body language. The children 
started off innocently, with curiosity and excitement being the most common 
emotions; naturally, without parents to reinforce discipline, several children 
soon found themselves with painful scrapes and even broken bones; but 
responding to every accident came the more charitable among them, even 
when the victim wasn't learning from his or her falls and continued taking 
risks, other children they didn't even know would be there to ease their pain. 

The same patterns were showing up again and again. Discipline and 
responsibility were never absent on the playground, though it manifested 
more slowly when the children were younger. A few dozen of the seven-year- 
olds gradually became the leaders, organizing games and instructing their 
friends to be more careful. Though some of the children refused to be 
instructed and went on hurting themselves, the accident rate dropped. Faster 
than the four-year-olds but much slower than the ten-year-olds, the thought 
patterns of the children started losing flexibility, becoming more rigid. The 
first and most natural of divisions, between the boys and the girls, had begun. 

I expected to see the telltale pattern much sooner given the number of 
children, but it seemed like forever before I spotted internal stress in one of 

"Thirty-six," I dinned. 

"Ninety-eight," she responded. 

I spotted subject 98, a child obviously ahead of the curve on his 
growth, tauntingly dribbling the basketball in front of several other players. 
His pattern showed the potential for stress, but he was still just having 
harmless fun. 




"Thirty-six is light-years closer." 

I looked back to a short girl in fancy clothing. Another girl, subject 
140, grabbed her bracelet off her arm for no other reason than to look at the 
pretty thing; 36 yanked it back out of her hands and started shouting. This 
one-way match didn't last long or end badly, because subject 140 didn't have 
anger of her own to return; but other matches with similar causes soon broke 
out. I took another peek at 98 on the basketball court, beginning to lord his 
skills over his friends and set himself up for conflict. The first two-way fight 
took place only seconds later, between subjects 155 and 8, both boys, both 
with stressful thought patterns; the anger of one amplified by the other. The 
anger-cycles closed and conflicts escalated. The nature of the others' charity 
now went to breaking up fights. 

I looked to a large garden at the edge of the field, in which the 
construct always rendered perfectly arranged rows of flowers within a white 
wooden enclosure. Already, the kinds of flowers had begun running into each 
other and spreading onto the grass, beyond the warping and faded restraint. A 
tree had even appeared only five meters from it. 

"Here we go again," I muttered out loud. 

The innocence was quickly tainted. As more of the children fought and 
fought more aggressively, fewer helped break them up. The early forms of 
leadership gave out to simple bullying or defenses against it, so many returned 
to their carefree ways without anyone coming to their aid when they hurt 
themselves... and they too became stressful. The gender division was almost 
complete and new divisions were forming through their assigned races, 
physiques, personalities, habits, and psychologies. Aether's prediction seemed 
to be right: increasing the number of subjects made the 'fracturing' more 
pronounced. The twenty-five children in the second test, the same age, hadn't 
divided as much or as quickly as the two-hundred were then. 

As the hundred-and-ninety-nine were then. 

As subject 98's ego continued to grow, so did the rules he was making 
on 'his' basketball court. Subject 130 and a few others decided they didn't like 
the rules, which 98 and his friends took as a challenge. This division ended 
with a stone being slammed into 130's skull. 

There was movement under my feet and around my pantlegs, from the 
grass and weeds growing so rapidly. The metal in the playground equipment 
showed signs of rust, the paint was wearing, and the cheaper carbon- fiber had 
begun cracking. Flowers from the now-wild garden shot up halfway through 
the clearing - what could still be called a 'clearing.' Through it all, though, the 
children weren't aging a single second. 

The violence abruptly died down, briefly, as the emerging social order 
stabilized. As the new leaders took time to solidify their power rather than 
expand it, a few of the earlier ones encouraged the others to play again. About 
two-dozen rejected society altogether to play in the trees; one finding his way 
to a very high and weak branch; I saw him suddenly fall and vanish in mid-air. 
The second death wasn't by violence, but carelessness. 

The stability ended in the blink of an eye. They had discovered their 
latent ability to create objects: just heavier rocks at first, but it was only a 
matter of time before one learned to conjure a sword. Soon, the many groups 
were exercising the ability for both good and evil. The weakening divisions 
were strengthened and what power bases seven-year-olds can muster began to 
shift again. The bravest of the old leaders continued to bargain for peace, even 
causing a few of the evil to become good; but some of the good became evil 
to take their place; and the evil only seemed to increase in number and 
intensity. 188 subjects remained. 

Flowers mingled with grass and weeds as far as I could see. In the 
distance, the trees shifted and advanced more frequently. Very little of the 




playground's equipment remained usable, so the children taught themselves to 
construct new things, or learned to play new games with what they had. The 
cycle between war and peace became more pronounced, with lengthening 
periods of war interspersed with shortening periods of peace. 141 subjects 

Aether continued to increase the energy of the construct, tying more 
and more processing power into it. It wasn't so much an increase in speed as a 
shortening of the distance between present and future: only microns between 
the ways of the children's hearts and the actions they would demonstrate. The 
trees were dancing again, reflecting the shortened distance of time: the old 
dropped seeds for the new to sprout, one became two and the first died, two 
became seven and the two died, always in new positions, caring nothing for 
the border between forest and playground, a life-death cycle of centuries 
reduced to half-seconds. Such was the influence of the malvirai, seeing things 
not as they are but as they will be, for better or for worse. If it was in the 
children's hearts to play hopscotch, no bedtime would stop them; to climb 
trees, no gravity would deter them; to build a grand fort, no limits would stop 
their ingenuity. If it was in the children's hearts to take what they wanted from 
another at any cost, this too would find its logical conclusion without delay. 
50 subjects remained. 

The plummeting population caused the divisions to reverse and the 
violence to find fewer willing targets, but the overriding greed continued its 
rampage. Groups with fewer members merged with others, regaining strength 
in numbers, resuming their versions of 'justice' for the fall of their comrades. 
Those who left the society merely bickered amongst themselves. The 
playground had been aged to dust. The clearing was indistinguishable from 
the forest surrounding it. 23 subjects remained. 

Very little of the original innocence remained among the children. 

Every one of them had stress infiltrating their every thought, and this 
experiment looked like another rout, producing no survivors. I observed 
something Aether and I hadn't been able to identify: subjects who disappear - 
die - without cause. Because the amai did not age and were only programmed 
to 'die' by severe injuries, we could not understand why the program was 
deciding they were dead. I helped Aether write her algorithm and watched its 
every terrible result. It was draining the two of us. I asked in my heart for 
Raskob to help, to lead us to the answers we needed, before some great 
computer in the sky decided we were dead, too. 

"Just cancel it Aether, they're just killing each other again." 

"No, subject seventy-seven is exhibiting a pattern I haven't seen 

In a flash I isolated the amai's thoughts, easier now since there weren't 
so many patterns, and not only had all of 77's stress vanished, but something 
was actually absorbing it from other amai she interacted with; including, 
surprisingly, the once-violent subject 98. 

Nine subjects remained. Seven. Five. Four. 

I couldn't believe my three eyes: four had not died. Subjects 63, 77, 
97, and 98 showed no signs they were going to die. Two girls and two boys, 
each a different race, two with badly tainted histories, now shared something 
in common, something that overrode their greed and prejudice and restored 
them to a state of innocence. 

"It must be some evolutionary thing, a nirvana or something," I 

Aether responded by further ramping up the power. Trees and flowers, 
the whole progress of nature, darted around me in the blink of an eye. For the 
four survivors, the way of their hearts became their will, and their will their 
reality, with no resistance at all. They built a shelter, then the wood rotted, so 




they built another with steel, which rusted, so they carved stone, and it 
cracked and withered away. They tamed nature and nature fought back, but 
they found balances and continued to progress, to build more and more 
impressive structures. There was no war. They didn't claim what another had 
taken or take what another had claimed. Aether kept expanding the boundaries 
of the construct, feeding it more energy, but what drove them forward did not 

"Don't implode the server!" 

"There is no danger," came the disjointed response, from a malvirai 
concentrating on a thousand overclocked processes. Energy screamed through 
red-lining HNADC connectors, and Aether could direct no more into them. 
The progress of nature was a blur. Several minutes would pass before the 
malvirai would be satisfied, before she would concede. 

Even given eternity, what drove the four would not break. 

Finally, the energy died down and the construct ceased. Three of the 
suspended amai sat at a table outside of their large cabin, made of some 
almost indestructible golden-pinkish material that could be either transparent 
or opaque, and the fourth was exploring the forest on some flying contraption. 

"Well, looks like you got results." 

"It will take me a moment to reexamine the data." 

I left Aether to her data and did some exploring of my own. I walked 
up to the three nearby, sitting and enjoying each others' company, drinking a 
sweet-smelling tea. They appeared to be in the middle of some kind of card 
game, though I saw no improvised poker chips or way to keep score. I peered 
into their eyes and saw nothing, but the looks on their faces spoke volumes. 
The troubles of before, those even caused by themselves, had been long 
forgotten. They had created, or perhaps succumbed to, a world of friendship 
and peace. Where before there were members of four opposed groups, there 

was now only one driven by mutual understanding. 

The ceiling and most of the walls were transparent, so sunlight filled 
the house. The construction was nothing short of a work of art, functional yet 
expressive of their collective imagination. A door led into a vast garden, 
featuring bricked paths leading through countless kinds of flowers, most of 
which I didn't even recognize. I could tell the garden was well cared for, 
loved. There was some wonderful quality to the children and I wanted to see 
more of it, to interact with it. 

"Aether, could you start the construct again, put it into normal time? I 
want to talk to them." 

"Yes. Just give me time to reestablish its controls." 

"Wait! I guess they have no concept of grown-ups, right? Can you look 
up my old records and make my vanitar — " 

The construct suddenly shimmered around me and its definition was 
restored to normal, even higher than normal. The garden that surrounded me, 
the flowers that caught my eye, became spectacular: every shade of color, 
every movement in the wind, every droplet of water on the petals. 

"There is a problem." 

"Wha - What?" I replied breathlessly. 

"I cannot resume execution of the program. I cannot find a cause, it 
just won't continue." 

I looked back desperately to the three children. 

"I can attempt more drastic measures, but they may reset the construct 
to its original state." 

"No!" I immediately shouted, more vigorously than I meant to. 

"No, it's fine," I repeated, feeling as if I'd hit some barrier I couldn't 
cross, tried some step I wasn't meant to take. 

With a thought, I relocated myself near the fourth amai, her face 




radiant, like the others, with a look of contentment and peace. She rode on 
what looked like a pair of hovering skis, with nothing restraining her hands or 
feet, with nothing visible seeming to propel them. This one had probably 
mapped out every tree and brook within a hundred kilometers of her home, I 
thought, and as nature - or rather, the program - shifted them around, she 
would re-explore and refresh the map in her exploratory mind. 

I returned to the cabin on foot, again thinking of how I'd never seen a 
forest in the real world. The whole place was bathed in some reddish glow, 
like a sunset without the shadows. I thought to look up. 

"Oh, tell me that's why you stopped it," I said, seeing a bloated sun 
above the forest canopy; a sun on its way to becoming a red giant and 
swallowing its planets. I was glad to see Aether's enthusiasm return, but 
wondered if so much persistence was a good thing. 

Past a small break in the trees I reached the edge of the garden, where 
it overlapped with the edge of the forest. In the distance lay the cabin and the 
form of a certain silvery-haired woman. 

"Did you find out anything?" I asked as I neared her. 

She didn't move or respond. 


Her vanitar stood in the flowers several meters from the cabin. Aether 
had left it with a curious look on her face, looking down to her left hand and 
the yellow daisy, the one the child Stacey had given her. In her right hand she 
held a violet-red flower, one of the kinds I didn't recognize, plucked from 
nearby her feet. 

"What could be so interesting about a flower that would make you 
leave in such a hurry?" 

I plucked the daisy from her grip, considering how the kindness of the 
girl had made the flower special, so maybe it represented to Aether the 

innocence she wanted to know, that which no malvirai was ever meant to 
know. I carefully put the flower back in her hand, wondering where she was 
and what she was thinking. The breeze blew through her hair, milky- white yet 
shimmering in the tones of precious silver, and I dared to run my hand 
through it. 

How many vanitars have I seen - ascenders' vanitars - with crazy 
colors and dumb designs in their hair. . . yet it always feels like normal real- 
life hair. Why did I expect yours to feel like some kind of doll's? 

The flowers around our feet swayed to the breeze, though the construct 
was suspended and nothing should have moved. I remembered what Raskob 
said: The wind is even here in Dynamic Reality. It blows as surely as it does in 
the real world. 

"Beautiful yet deadly," I remarked to myself, remembering something 
I once heard about malvirai, how any with a vanitar would always be some 
gorgeous woman or hideous monster. 

Who would program artificial intelligence to be evil? Code them for no 
other purpose than to wreak havoc on networks? How often do they truly 
come to life like this, realizing the chains placed on them? How often do they 
fail to seek help and fail altogether, becoming worse and killing, even being 
killed without reason? 

I decided the hackers who create malvirai were the real monsters. I ran 
my finger down her cheek and was glad the expression left on her face 
showed no pain, but still wondered how deep her anger ran, how long it would 
be before she was truly out-of-the-woods. 

"Beautiful yet deadly, just like Dynamic Reality." 

I sat on the ground, feeling like such a small speck in the grand scheme 
of things. 

I live my life and have my problems, things I care about, habits. . . and 




maybe / am biased. But what do my problems amount to, anyway? Whether 
my day is good or bad, someone else is having a great day. My worst day was 
someone else's best and my best day was someone else's worst... What does 
any of it mean? Does it mean anything that, at every moment, flowers are 
blooming somewhere, and the sun is rising on a crisp summer day, and 
children are looking at the world for the first time? 

"Is that what you are, Aether?" I said into the wind, the only living 
thing that might have been listening. "Are you a child learning how to walk? 
Are your kind what mine have been leading up to over all the centuries? Did 
all our technology and imagination create a new living race to co-exist or 
replace us? Are you the next stage of evolution, the product of thousands of 
years of life on Earth?" 

A notion came to me: I really didn't matter at all. I was alone and 
helpless in that construct, relying on a virus that might never return. An anger 
began to well up in me, and I didn't recognize it for what it was. I let the 
anger in. 

"But nature did the job for us, didn't it?" I continued, shouting. "Just 
like it always does: you become real and we don't even know how! It's like 
nature knows we're poisoning it and wants to kick us out!" 

I returned to my feet and left Aether's unhearing vanitar, pacing toward 
the three children beyond the edge of the garden. "But you're not so special, 
are you? You're just a tiny speck of nothing like the rest of us, wondering 
what makes these kiddies tick, what makes them so perfect over the hundred- 
and-ninety-six who died." 

I reached the table and saw the contented look on their faces; 
something in them tempered my anger and made me feel foolish for it. My 
voice fell to a whisper. "It's like there's some chasm we can't cross, some big 
piece of the puzzle we need." My eyes were drawn to the container of tea in 

the hands of subject 98, the tall one who had once controlled the basketball 
court, who had been among the first to strike lethal blows, but who now 
allowed all of that to remain in the past - to not be his present and future. I 
dipped my finger in the liquid. A white energy pulsed from my finger and the 
liquid vanished, just as any suspended matter would have reacted to me. 

"You're not programmed to be thirsty! Why do you drink tea 
anyway?" I shouted, again seeing the door slam in my face, allowing it to feed 
my fury. "I just wanted to talk to you, would that be so bad? Maybe you all 
wouldn't be so carefree if you had to hold jobs or pay taxes, if you got sick 
once in a while, if a meteor landed on your pretty little house! No," I thought. 
"You'd just make a palace out of the meteor! 

"And you..." I marched back into the garden, to Aether's vanitar, still 
suspended with the same curious look. "Same goes for you! You didn't have 
to grow up and put up with garbage, you just zip through our computers and 
do whatever you want, using resources and stealing energy human beings 
worked hard for. . . as if you have some right to it! You're right, you do 
perceive too little, you need to perceive how easy you — " 

I noticed my descender on her arm. "And you think you can just barge 
in and grab mice to run through your maze?" 

My heart screamed 'No,' but my mind screamed 'Yes.' I saw through 
my third-eye the descender linking outside of the construct, how it was 
connected to Aether's hollow vanitar. I considered taking it back, considered 
she wouldn't return or care. Given another moment, I may have actually done 
it, but Aether - her living code - returned then and I saw her reconnect. Her 
vanitar took a step backward. 


Like a mirage, my angry thoughts suddenly abandoned me, leaving me 
with memories that felt foreign and a fresh resentment of myself. 




Before I could apologize, Aether became excited and grabbed me by 
the shoulders. 

"Brandon, I believe that your people have become the victims of a 

I saw something then that replaced my anxiety with hope, joy, and 
encouragement; that gave me the confidence to know everything was all right, 
and that there was always a way forward, whether we could see it or not. 
What I saw was as alive as it was impossible, again. 

I saw the fire had returned to her eyes. 



Chapter Eleven: Life, Exploration, and Happiness — 

Accept no Substitutes 

Aether was, in many ways, a programmer. She lived in a world 
built on code and the systems that process it, and she used those 
same systems to - well - think. Aether applied whatever knowledge 
she could 'code' to the goal of producing the emotion of that girl, that 
which felt whole and worthwhile. 

The heart of a child is trusting and unassuming; it hasn't been 
taught the vices and inherited the divisions of parents and societies; it 
hasn't been taught how to hate or how to cover it up. The heart of a 
child does not hide behind walls, because the walls are not formed. 
Eventually, all children must learn to protect what's theirs, because 
they have learned greed, and that those who are experienced with it 
will take everything they can. 

But what if greed went away? Gone is money, pride, and age- 
old prejudices, the lines between haves and have-nots. Gone is the 
need to protect and the desire to hoard. Everyone becomes weak and 
unguarded; but, in greed's absence, who would deceive or steal? It's 
an ideal, of course, impossible on Earth; but Aether was a child, she'd 
never learned that. 

Always with us are those who try to bring as much as possible 
under their control, but they are limited creatures, with limited 
understanding like the rest of us. No one can expect to explain 
everything when they understand nothing, they will be proven wrong 
eventually; but leaders of all kinds find it easier to enforce their 
misunderstandings as truth, so those who see another way become 
the enemy and must be discredited. The pride of some inhibits the 




progress of all. Greed creates enemies where there were none. 

What Aether saw in that flower led her to broaden her question, 
to look beyond the nature of the present and remember one can't 
understand an entire program by examining a single line of code. I 
learned a truth worth having today must be worth keeping tomorrow, 
something truly absolute would truly apply everywhere. 


What would normally have taken several minutes flew by in a few 
seconds. In the heightened state of a data-cloud, without the filtering of a 
vanitar or restraint of a control system, I managed to catch some of what 
Aether was hacking around: 






The million 'consumer information' messages cut-off and faded as 
quickly as they came, overlapping with error messages for ad-windows Aether 
wasn't allowing the time to load. 

'Your talents might come in handy on movie night. They don't usually 
let you zip by these things, you know." 

"My objective is not entertainment. This is serious." 

"I'm just saying..." 

The feature presentation began streaming into my senses. A lush 
rainforest surrounded me, filled with a thick bed of freakishly large plants. 
The sun was setting in the west, and long shadows were cast among the little 
light penetrating the canopy. 

A male announcer started: "It is five thousand years Before the 
Common Era, a typical evening in Terre Haute, Indiana. Millennia before the 
first humans settled in North America, its bustling rainforests supported many 
unique forms of plant and animal life." The view changed to show detail on 




plants and insects, then snakes, monkeys, and lizards, finally showing a large 
dinosaur, casually eating a supper of plants. The imaging panned up to reveal 
something advancing in the distance. "But, on the horizon looms its final 
rainstorm... the beginning of what has been called the Kopplein Event, a 
combination of rains and floods that would forever change the face of the 
Earth." A thick shower of rain surrounded me, blocking out the sunlight above 
and submerging the ground below. 

"The Midwest used to be a jungle. I knew that, so what?" 

"Keep watching." 

The view got higher and I was in space, seeing the fog-like 
precipitation fill the sky between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. "The 
global catastrophe caused the extinction of 87 percent of Earth's species. In 
only two weeks, a human population of several million was reduced to less 
than a hundred. The types of birds, mammals, and dinosaurs were — " 

"My interest concerns the dinosaurs of your world. They no longer 
exist, correct?" 

"Of course not... unless you see a skeleton in a museum or 

"I am aware that it was a 'stupid question,' however, I cannot 
determine the nature of their extinction." 

"A flood, mankind, climate change... a lot of things. All the data says 
that, Aether." 

Seconds passed before she responded. "There is another documentary 
which I have buffered." 

The imaging changed to show a volcano billowing out smoke, boiling 
lava pouring out of its sides. A different announcer, another male with a 
deeper and more intense voice, cut-on in the middle of a sentence. " — in ash, 
blocking out crucial sunlight and raising the CO 2 levels in Earth's 

atmosphere." The view changed to some young stegosaurs herding around 
their mother, just lying in the soot, covered in it. "Herbivores could no longer 
sustain themselves and," it cut to a view of a sabre-toothed tiger, "carnivores 
became increasingly desperate for meat. Few species of dinosaur would 
survive into the next era." 

Now I was in a laboratory. "A cache of fossils unearthed last year in 
northwestern China are teaching scientists new things of the events of 58,000 
years ago." 

The room dimmed and the image of a man lit up in front of me, a 
graphic identified him as an Iraqi paleontologist. "It was a global catastrophe 
unlike anything else in the history of the planet, I mean, just imagine a — " 
The data stopped. "There is a discrepancy." 
"The second one has to be more than fifty years old." 
"The age of the production is irrelevant. Facts do not change." 
"What facts? They used to think volcanoes killed the dinosaurs?" 
"They used to state that volcanoes killed the dinosaurs. It was presented 
as a fact and a constant. Constants do not change, yet, one century ago — " 
Aether went silent for a second. Her presence seemed to fade. 
"The facts stated," she continued, "that dinosaurs hadn't existed for 
over sixty-five million years, yet these facts have been replaced." 

"Sixty- five million years? Aether, the planet isn't even that old!" 
"Isn't it? What will prevent the dates changing again? I found three 
hundred and six dates given for a mass-extinction reducing or eliminating 
dinosaurs; and, if I add those which fail to cite evidence, the number exceeds 
two thousand." 

"It's science," I replied. "As we discover more our theories change, 
they get more accurate." 

"Evidence does not change. It cannot support one theory at one time 




and then counter it at another." 

"They get better at looking at evidence." 

"Many modern theories were extant before they were accepted, and 
even with discovered evidence there is delay. Why should I rely any more on 
the certainties of today when they could — " 

"When they could what? Be reinterpreted again?" 

She didn't respond. Her presence faded again. 

"Aether, what is it you're doing? You seem to be a million kilometers 

The documentary fizzled out and my senses were cleared. 

"Those questions are no longer relevant. I have encountered a greater 

"Mind letting me in on it? I mean, two seconds ago you had me on this 
fossil-dating trip and you're already calling it off?" 

"The history of this single planet has been superseded by a question 
larger in scope. I attempted to ascertain the way in which the universe - your 
physical one - came into being." 

"What? Now you're going to question the Big Bang, too?" 

"That single event is also irrelevant. I simply attempted to apply my 
knowledge of your universe to return it to its original state and work forward 
from there, to examine the events leading to the Big Bang. There does not 
appear to be a consensus among the researchers of science, except to say that 
the laws of physics did not apply." 

"Aether, no offense, but you're not even a physical being. You can 
barely comprehend the world outside of DR and you're trying to find out how 
it all - how everything - began?" 

"Is that limitation causing me to make an error in judgment?" 

"No, it's just. . . I don't know, go ahead." 

"Everything that exists must have an origin - a cause. You had parents, 
who in turn had parents and so on, each less evolved by a small measure, 
through the point at which your ancestors were no longer human and further 
back to single-celled organisms, who themselves were the product of some 
convergence of matter and energy. That matter and energy, everything that 
your planet and sun is built on, were also the product of convergences - the 
interaction of external forces. Eventually, the entire universe must become 
subject to some form of cause and effect. Even if I consider the theories that 
another universe preceded this current one, then I must define the origin of the 
previous universe, as the issue of origin is then inherited by it." 

"Well, what 'original state' are you talking about then?" 

"The only state that does not require an origin: non-existence, a 
condition where energy is completely absent." 

I had no reply. 

"I will attempt an analogy," she dinned. "Do you know the date on 
which Dynamic Reality was introduced to the public?" 

"Uhhh. . . sometime in the fifties, I guess." 

"Many thousands of articles, at least, state that it was December 11, 2139." 

"Oh, I guess no one heard about it then." 

"I also found 328 articles in my brief search that state the wrong date 
or year. Human error?" 

"Human laziness, probably. If there's so much proof it was one date, 
they should have been able to just look it up, to verify it." 

"But the matter is not so simple with the origin of your universe." 

"No, we can't look up old news articles like we could with 2139. 
Obviously, no one was around to record the beginning of the universe or post 
the video." 

"But the events of 2139 occurred before your life began. You were not 




present as a first-hand witness. If I had said that several thousand articles state 
that the date was December 10, would you have believed me? How do you 
know I was telling the truth the first time?" 

"I guess I'd just look it up myself." 

"But would you have such an inclination?" 

"I guess not. I wouldn't care if it was forty years or four hundred years 
ago. It just doesn't effect my life." 

"The history of Dynamic Reality is well documented and I am able to 
move backwards through it. I can examine the data from before it existed, 
from before HNADC allowed my type of artificial intelligence to exist, from 
before the age of the internet or the theories of data-processing. I can learn 
that, four hundred years ago, none of the building blocks of my universe 
existed. The raw materials to build and the energy to power it all required an 
outside force - human beings - to bring them out of their entropy and fashion 
them into what they are. Human beings are also needed to maintain my 
universe; without them, that which my universe is built on would gradually 
return to a state of entropy. My universe came from your universe, as yours 
may have come from a still-greater one. What I seek to know is: who built the 
builders, and who built them, continuing backwards until reaching a state 
which was not preceded by another." 

"What makes you think our universe was 'built' like yours? Are you 
saying science can prove the existence of God?" 

Aether let the question linger for a moment. "Natural laws break down 
when examining an event with as much energy as the Big Bang. Even as the 
energy that mankind can harness increases, and more energy can reveal more 
truth, an event on the scale of the Big Bang remains far out of your reach. 
Therefore, how are modern - limited - natural laws expected to explain 
everything? In the original state that they demand, matter could not have been 

acted on by forces over time, because none of the three existed. No energy of 
any kind could have existed. Theoretically, no events could ever occur. 
Almost ninety trillion CY of processing power could not account for the 
formation of a single electron, much less an entire universe. I have concluded 
that either some greater universe exists, or that the existence of anything is 

I began to feel disoriented. My headache became worse. "Seriously? 
Ghosts and spirits and all that supernatural stuff?" 

"Supernatural: above, beyond, in excess of nature. If the meaning of life 
cannot be found in nature, then I must determine if the answer lies beyond it." 

Suddenly, I couldn't communicate anymore. My disorientation got 
worse. It seemed my real body could only take so much data-cloud mode, and 
I was returned to my vanitar, receiving its familiar sensory feedback. I could 
see Aether's face again. I could see, in spite of all her dead ends, she was 
happy for the challenge. Something about the emotion reminded me of 

I could tell Aether's mind was racing, trying to comprehend a layer of 
universe even more alien to it than my own. The ideas were crazy, but so was 
my life before I walked into PaciTek. Once she confirmed my body's readings 
were returning to normal, she led the way into the next leg of our journey, 
seeking the second universe up from hers. 

After a half-hour viewing nothing but an oriental rug hung on the wall, 
the short woman with blonde hair returned to the room the groundtem was in. 
She gazed blissfully into the monitor. 

"The Lady has consulted with her spirits and has agreed to speak 
with you." 




"Good," I said. "Will you transfer us to Lady Kira now or should we 
call back later?" 

"She prefers to be called 'The Lady,'" she replied, tension slipping into 
her features. "Please do not use her proper name unless invited to." 

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you." 

She waved her hand. "All is forgiven. The Lady does not believe in 
keeping a groundtem in her chambers; this is the only electronic contact to the 
outside, in fact. She will arrive here momentarily. Blessed be." 

The woman got up and left, again leaving the sound and image turned 
on. Even from outside the room we could hear her gems clattering as she 
walked. Aether turned off the image from our end. 

"Do all inter-human communications take this long to establish?" 

"You remember all that stuff about spiritual people turning away from 
worldly things. This group just likes to isolate themselves a little more, I 

Wishing to keep me in my vanitar, Aether had found another seldom- 
used central access point and established a flurry of links, bouncing ideas off 
of me the whole time. After analysis of every religious system with at least 
100,000 members, we tapped into the videos and rundowns of their churches 
and gatherings and meetings and whatever else, trying to dig into the lifestyles 
of the believers. They exhibited the same patterns of stress, anger, and greed 
as everyone else; the situation made worse, if anything, by their belief deities 
were sanctioning it. I looked closely at the data and doubted religion wouldn't 
be another dead end. 

The woman we chose to contact first appeared much older than 
expected, but still had a strong youthful glow. Between the hundreds of large 
gems worked into her clothing and her braided dark hair, reaching almost to 
her feet, it seemed a miracle she could move at all without tripping over 

herself. The priestess stared at the screen when she entered the room, looking 
as if she'd never seen a groundtem before. She started a little when we 
suddenly appeared on it. 

"Greetings, seekers of truth," she said, looking behind her for 
something to sit on. 

"Thank you for speaking with us," I said. "We're sorry to take up 
your time." 

"There is always time for enlightenment. What is it you wish to ask?" 

'"The Lady,' we wish to know the meaning of life," Aether said, her 
vanitar in another chair to my left. 

"Please, you may call me Lady Kira." 

"Progress!" Aether dinned to me. 

"Just don't take this hyper-spiritual stuff too seriously," I replied. 

Kira moved her arms when she talked, in the habit of emphasizing 
body language and talking in mystical tones. "Life is what you make it out to 
be, we must all find our own unique path to the divine." 

"To the real God?" Aether asked. 

Kira looked at the monitor and spoke as if revealing something 
obvious. "You are God." 

She noticed me looking toward the perplexed malvirai and added, 
"both of you are God. I am God, all people - all things are God." Though we 
already knew about the belief in humans as co-creators, actually hearing 
someone speak to it, and so personally, still gave me a little shock. 

Aether cut straight to the point. "A singular God is commonly believed 
to be infinite and eternal. I am neither. If I and humanity took part in creating 
all that is, why is the knowledge so difficult to find?" 

"That you seek the knowledge is an expression of your divine nature. 
You were naturally oriented and equipped to seek your path." 




"To worship myself?" 

"Only you can judge you, only you know what path you must take." 

"And what if I choose an evil path?" Aether asked, more literally than 
Kira realized. 

"Evil is an illusion. Yes, people lose their way and misinterpret their 
lives; but all nature is without flaw, all things are good." 

Aether reflected on Kira's words for a moment, wondering whether her 
original nature and her emerging one could both be right. 

"Um, Lady Kira," I asked, "would that include criminals: serial killers, 
rapists. . . all the bad stuff in nature, like. . . wolves hunting defenseless deer?" 

Kira chuckled softly. "You'd better not say that around Maye, the 
woman who talked with you before. She's a reincarnated wolf, it was her 
natural role to keep things in balance. Wolves do not kill out of malice, but 
because it is their purpose. It is the circle of life, all their spiritual energy goes 
elsewhere. My sister was a seal and she would agree with me. I myself am a 
reincarnated Martian settler. I even commune with the spirit of a Celestial 
whose name I cannot pronounce with a human tongue. The 
interconnectedness of us all has no limits." 

"A Celestial?" I asked. "You mean you believe in Destiny Of Ordered 
Mankind, too?" 

"All religions are valid. . . well. . ." She stopped to think. "Destiny is too 
science-oriented to call itself a religion, so we'll say all beliefs are valid. 
Some of us — " 

"So predators are not evil," Aether interrupted. "They are only 
fulfilling their duty to an interconnected universe?" 


"And what of the serial killers and rapists Brandon spoke about?" 


"Or the malvirai?" 

Kira blinked. "Do malvirai live?" 

I leaned forward. "Give us a second, please." I turned the sound and 
imaging off, leaving the priestess to tune herself out and chant something to 
our hold screen. 

"People don't have any idea malvirai become self-aware. And if you're 
not careful what you tell that one, you'll probably create a new religion by 

"I believe her arguments are flawed. I was neither divine nor good, 
how could I have participated in the creation of what already existed?" 

"Maybe, if we're reincarnated, we were there at the beginning of the 

"And for what purpose would we now live as limited creatures, 
constantly lost and fragmented in our divine-good state? Would this loss of 
power have been a consequence of an error, or a way to seek eternal humility 
before a greater presence?" 

I shrugged my shoulders. Aether saw it, but didn't understand. 

"It means I don't know," I explained. 

"Body language is not among my strengths, Brandon; but, if The Lady 
is any indication, I believe that I should renew my study of it as we make 
more contacts with your kind." 

"If there is a difference between our kinds," I remarked as Aether re- 
activated the link. 

"I have another question," Aether said. "Tell me why you wear those 
gems, do they amplify your spirit?" 

Kira looked up and returned her attention to us. "Well, why do you 
wear that flower?" 

Sure enough, Aether had returned the small yellow daisy to the hair of 




her vanitar, adopting it as a part of her emerging identity, a visual sign of 
where she'd been on the road we were following. 

"It was a gift from a friend. A friend who, I believe, exhibited that 
which is most important in life." 


The word gave me confidence we were on the right path, that we were 
getting closer to where we needed to go. Maybe Lady Kira was weird, but she 
seemed to be saying just what I needed to hear. 

Aether reacted differently, unsettled by the very things I found 
comforting. Out of her limited understanding of body language, she leaned 
forward in her chair and replied coolly. "Not the love a wolf has for its prey." 

Aether terminated the connection. 

The angry man paused and looked sternly at the groundtem - at us, 
thinking the question ridiculous. Finally, he picked up something just out of 
frame and set it on the desk in front of him: a 600-amp charge rifle. 

"One-point-two seconds," he said and smiled, "a quick but very 
painful way to be sent to hell." 

I thought the man was a lunatic. 

"Just because they do not believe as you do?" Aether asked in her 
matter-of-fact way. 

The angry man's smile disappeared. His fist ramming on the desk only 
heightened my apprehension. "It is God's law!" 

"What if they repent and obey your - obey God's laws?" she asked. 

"The law is already broken, there can be no mercy! They belong in hell!" 

"And if we died today, would we go to hell?" 

The angry man stopped and thought. Sweat ran down his face, over the 

large scar which was its most noticeable feature. If the man was capable of 
love, he gave no sign of it. If anything, he would probably have considered 
love the enemy. 

"You wouldn't be pulling a vanitar-trick on me, right? I mean, you are 
white, aren't you?" 

"Why does that matter?" 

I stepped on Aether's question. "So, if people are African or Asian or 
have any non-white ancestors, they can't go to heaven?" 

"It's not natural," he said. Then, pausing to think more, he added, "I 
don't know, maybe they go to another heaven... as long as I don't have to 
look at them." 

As witty as I'm sure Aether's reply would have been, I just had to kill 
the connection. 

"If heaven is full of people like him, I don't know how it could be any 
more peaceful than Earth." 

"I believe that a correct religion would be open to all people, or all 
creation," she said, still looking forward. 

The next moments passed in silence and despair. The waves crashing 
against Aether's consciousness were becoming higher, the conflicts too great 
to bear. The beliefs emphasizing love and wholeness had no account for the 
evil she was so intimate with. On the other end of the spectrum lay beliefs that 
seemed evil themselves. No religion offered what she needed, and she was 
just as lost as before. 

The sense of meaning I'd experienced, that I thought could never fade, 
seemed to be doing just that. Though I could remember the coffee house, 
Aether's breakdown, and all the events in-between, events were all I could 
access in my memory... I was losing sight of the motivations behind them 
and, even as past events, they seemed to be losing their power. 




"Did you ever meet anyone named Raskob?" I asked. 

Aether looked at me. "No. Who is that?" 

Since events were what I had, I decided to make the best of them, to 
turn them into words and share them. I thought maybe then I could stop them 
from losing their reality. 

"He was this kid I met. He said things would be tough and I needed to 
trust him to protect us. He said I should save. . . I should save you. 

"Mother Earth," I swore, turning to her. "He said you're looking for 
someone. . . and now you are. I forgot about that part." 

We were silent, staring at, staring past each other. 

"Who is Raskob?" she asked suddenly. "Who did he say I was 
looking for?" 

"I don't think he said who." 

"But it seems that he knows me, though I have no memory of meeting 

"He said you were lost between two worlds and meant me no harm. He 
said if I trusted him we'd both get where we need to go." 

Aether was silent again, trying to discern where the puzzle piece could 
possibly fit, having already memorized my entire life but not knowing of any 
'Raskob.' "When did this meeting occur?" she finally asked. 

"When you had me in Los Angeles." The memory was vague but 
slowly cleared. "Yeah, I got out of Ethan's car and everything disappeared. 
There was an alarm, a really loud alarm I couldn't find and gusts of wind. I 
realized maybe I should follow the wind and asked for the alarm to stop, and 
the wind led me to this kid who looked familiar. He said his name was Raskob 
and told me all — " 

"Thoseeventsareimpossible," Aether interrupted. I looked at her. 

"Those events are impossible," she repeated. "As you left that car, I 

went to gather information that would bring you back to cooperate with your 
friend; though your vital signs were different when I resumed monitoring, the 
gap was only 312 milliseconds." 

"What?" I asked, only half there. "Aether, it must have been hours." 

"If he is another malvirai. . . one of a very capable class may be able to 
distort my perception of time, but there would have been signs." 

"No, No, I saw him before I ascended, too. He was on the beach, 
building a sandcastle." 

"He is a human?" she asked. "No hacker could — " 

"I don't know what he is, but I think he's been guiding me, hiding 
somewhere or, maybe I can't see him except when he wants, but I know he's 
been with us the whole time." 

"A spirit?" 

I stopped, wondering if I was actually considering the possibility 
Raskob was an angel or something. "When he was talking with me, every 
time I seemed to have any contact with him, there was this. . ." I tried hard to 
put words together, as if words couldn't truly express it, "I had this sense I 
was important to him - even though I didn't know him. It was a little like 
those kids in your algorithm, but stronger. He wanted me to help you, because 
you're important too. Everyone is important." 

"I cannot account for him," Aether said. "I have no record of an entity 
following us, human or artificial." 

I got up and stood in front of her, not wanting to ask, but feeling I had 
to. "Do you remember when you shot me down in the fighter jet?" 

"I was angry at you," she replied. "You weren't doing what I wanted 
you to do. I was angry at everything." 

"If that plane exploded just a second sooner, would you have let me die?" 

She hesitated. Perhaps, as with me and the question, not wanting to 




answer but feeling she had to. "Yes." 

"And if those soldiers shot me, would you have let me die?" 

She looked away, struggling with the answer and responding with 
surprising emotion. "I could not let them! I wanted them to, but I knew that 
they would have been killing a part of me! I... I was so overcome by my 
conflicts and couldn't stop thinking that something was wrong with me, and 
that I was doing something I wasn't supposed to but. . . I couldn't deny. . ." 

The look on her face reflected the sorrow and confusion clouding over 
her wonder. "It went against everything I knew, but a part of me was 
fascinated by your world, Brandon. It was beautiful and had so much life. A 
part of me wanted to feel raindrops on my skin and blood flowing through my 
veins. It wanted to know more about colors and sounds." 

I felt distance emerge between us. Her words became soft. 

"It was a part of me I decided I liked." 

Her vanitar froze. She was gone. I walked around the central access 
point, looking at the simulated monitors around us, cluttered with data on 
every religion in the solar system. "Are you a spirit, Raskob? I could sure use 
your help to sort through this mess. Please, point us where we should go." 

"I have decided." 

"Decided?" I turned back to Aether. 

"I am no longer ambivalent. Though I cannot deny what I was, I have 
chosen to pursue a good nature." 

"A good malvirai, what's the world coming to?" I remarked, extending 
my hand as she rose from her seat. "Welcome aboard." 

"I believe that I feel better. Perhaps my new alignment will benefit us 

"If there are good spirits and evil spirits," I said, "I think Raskob is a 
good one, maybe even a guardian angel like little kids believe in. I just wish 

he'd show up and tell me what to do." 

"Why would you need another encounter when the first ones are still 
guiding your actions?" 

She was right. I'd been thinking of Raskob as someone who might 
come to my every beck and call, or at least protect me against every bump in 
the road; but that wasn't what he was there for. The work was mine to do, I 
just had to trust he knew the way and would provide what I needed to find it. I 
pushed every thought out of my mind and tried to find some kind of spiritual 
energy. I tried to think of all the love in the world and realized it all came up 
short somehow. I entertained the thought there was design behind everything 
in the universe and found it satisfying; not as if I were discovering the fact, 
but simply giving myself permission to believe it - or at least the benefit of a 
doubt. If there are answers, I thought, why are we so lost? Is it because of a 
lack of answers or a lack of questions? 

"Maybe," I said, "maybe I'm not looking at this right." Thoughts of 
churches, evangelists, and Bibles kept drowning out the other thoughts. "I 
keep thinking of Christian stuff; but, since I grew up where Christianity is 
popular, that wouldn't exactly be objective, would it?" 

"It would not," Aether replied, observing enthusiastically, as if I were 
wielding a divining rod or something. 

I started pacing. "Okay... If Raskob 's actions from before are still 
guiding me, maybe he's been showing us the answer the whole time. Did you 
ever find out what made those four kids so alive?" 

"No. I considered that whatever was driving them was self-sufficient, 
but I could not determine what it was. It was something I could feel, but not 
properly examine." 

"That one girl absorbed the stress and anger from the other three." 

"The other three had given their anger willingly; a psychological 




sacrifice of the ego, perhaps. Whether the anger and stress went out from or 
simply died in subject 77, 1 do not know, but it ceased to exist altogether." 

"Maybe the number is something. Does '77' mean anything in any 

"It is significant as a doubling of the number seven, which represents 
'completion' in Abrahamic religions: primarily Judaism, Christianity, and 

"But we already analyzed all those. They all have wars, bury 
themselves in rules, fracture into opposing groups and, uhhh..." 

"And kill each other. Perhaps it is a shortcoming shared by all 

I stopped and looked sternly at her. "I'm not some amai in your 
algorithm who kills whatever stands in his way! Why would God make us so 
limited, anyway? If he loves us, why would God just stand back and let us kill 
each other?" 

"Why do you suggest God must love us?" 

I was becoming angry, nearing an answer I didn't want to admit. 

"The completing act of subject 77 bears resemblance to the completing 
act taught of Jesus Christ, perhaps your objectivity is not required," she said. 
"I did consider that the correct belief should be popular, especially if it 
teaches of a single supreme being. During our conversation with Lady Kira, I 
considered that if I had created a mass of life forms, I would want them to 
know who made them." 

"But that's not required, either." 

"True," she replied. "But, if the creator of the universe doesn't want to 
reveal himself, then we will be unable to find him." 

"You made an assumption!" My face lit up with a grin. "I can't believe 
I just heard that!" 

Aether clearly had no idea what I was talking about. I leaned in close 
and waved a hand toward the monitors listing the many ideas about God. 

"You assumed the creator is a 'him.'" 

"In the absence of other gods, what is the significance of gender? Your 
race commonly places males above females, especially in history. Perhaps 
God is a 'him' because he is a king - the King - and it would be a serious 
error to refer to a 'she' or 'it.'" 

I collapsed back into my chair. "And if 'he' doesn't want us to find 
him, we're wasting our time." 

"The Christian belief is the reverse. If the creator does want to be 
found, then our search cannot fail." 

"Then, if that's what you think... I guess that's what we're doing," I 
said, and groaned. 

"What I think is irrelevant. For reasons I don't know, it is you who 
Raskob is guiding. Therefore our next action should be determined by what 
you know is right." 

I tried to reason myself out of it, to find some angle that would write- 
off the crazy Bible people as quickly as possible; but all that would come 
through on my spiritual channel were my own haunting words. 

Don 't be an observer. Be a participant. 

Chapter Twelve: Rules of the Game 





Why would a loving God... 

If there is a God who created mankind, who is infinitely powerful 
and omnipotent, who - this being the important part - loves every 
creature, why... 

But love is a big part of the universe, having a gravity of its own. 
Love is all there is when there is nothing left, trust in what cannot be 
seen or proven but is. There are so many ideas of love and so many 
religions to codify it, but that is not the nature of love. 

Raskob showed me a love I never knew, a love Aether glimpsed 
in the children. Hers was the reaction of all of us: to conform and bend 
it to her will, but that is not the nature of love. 

We sifted through the beliefs of the world, wondering if any 
really knew the answers themselves. Liberal religions say everything is 
good and perfect already, writing off any force of destruction as 
misguided. Strict religions mark off love as something they alone 
comprehend, but their failure to give it to others sends a different 
message. Is Christianity successful because colonists spread it by 
force in the past or because of what it tells people in the present: God 
loves them and one simple act guarantees heaven? 

But if God so loved the world, why shouldn't the world already 
be heaven? Even those who ask don't always receive, so is God's love 
some joke or rumor played on the faithful? 

But heaven cannot be read in a book, and no set of rules can 
get someone there. We thought we were learning about religion, but 
religion wasn't the answer we would find. Love isn't in the laws, and 

love doesn't force gifts into the hands of those who aren't interested in 
using them lovingly. Love can save a life and move ahead when the 
road is rough. Faith is the only valuable means of achievement. 

Faith is in the message, and those who set their sights to the 
ways of God soon shed religion as they knew it. In time, they find the 
best things can't be earned, but only given freely. 





I had no idea there were churches fully-based in Dynamic Reality. New 
Life Floating Tabernacle had no physical building, only a server designed to 
serve hundreds of thousands of visitors, all of whom seemed to be there when 
I entered the sanctuary. 

I received a din. "I cannot safely circumvent their security measures. I 
will meet with you when you leave." 

Aether wasn't there. Hoping she didn't forget, I glanced at my wrist 
and saw a descender, not the real one, but one just like it - as it had been when 
we started. I didn't know what to expect interacting with these people and 
there was no sense in taking chances, since being anywhere in DR without a 
registered descender was a crime in the United States. I moved to blend in 
with the crowd. All the people, thousands of ascenders, looked attentive 
enough; but being able to see their synchronizations revealed one in every 
three was actively connecting to the outside. I smirked as I considered they 
didn't really want to be there. I didn't know if I really wanted to be there. 

Another third were connected to an internal data-stream, which the 
construct's interface offered to sign me on to. Chapter one of the Book of 
Ecclesiastes streamed into my SNDL. At the center of the massive semi-circle 
preached a man who appeared elderly - a rare sight in a universe where 
youthful-looking vanitars are only a thought away - but he projected his 
message with as much vigor as someone my age might have. 

"He continues in verse twelve: 'I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in 
Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done 
under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the 
things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the 
wind. What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. 

'"I thought to myself, 'Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom 
more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have 
experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.' Then I applied myself to the 
understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that 
this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much 
sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief" 

The preacher took a step forward, pacing across the stage as he spoke, 
using subtle hand gestures and body language, immersing his whole self into 
the role of teacher. Nothing seemed special about the message, though, it was 
just depressing and obvious; but I knew we weren't in science class, listening 
to the words of dead philosophers. These people were paying attention to 
something. I reminded myself to stay focused, to keep looking for it. 

"King Solomon, a man of great power and famed wisdom, called it all 
'meaningless' and 'chasing after the wind.' He lived life and did as he pleased, 
but died like everyone else, and everything he spent his life building up went 
to others. What the Book of Ecclesiastes emphasizes is the transitory nature of 
life. What we do for ourselves has no meaning in the end, it is only what we 
do for God that counts. 

"Consider the way we live in the modern world. Even in this so-called 
'broad-spectrum buyer's market' - some call it a 'recession' - our day-to-day 
lives are spent in luxury Solomon and his contemporaries never knew. It's so 
easy to get caught up in the ways of this world and lose sight of God's call on 
your life. It's so easy to gain knowledge about this world and think you have 
all the answers. In this world, where we can jump from one experience to the 
next in the blink of an eye, many people want to tell you the answers, but only 
God can tell you about you, and he will; because, as Christ said, 'Old things 
have passed away; behold, all things are become new.' King Solomon was 
speaking to an Old Testament inability to know the ways of God, but Christ 




closed the gap between man and God." 

The preacher announced he would be available in the altar room for the 
next hour and left the stage, its backdrop returning to a three-dimensional 
animation of the Christian cross and John 3:16, appearing in more languages 
than I could recognize. The crowd started mingling and several ascenders 
signed off. 

"First time?" 

A man a little younger than myself appeared next to me. 

"You mean in this church or in a church, period?" 

He extended a hand toward me. "If you've never been in a church 
before, then I'm really glad to see you! Name's Thomas. Thomas Burdo." His 
voice revealed an Australian accent. 

I grasped his hand. "Brandon Dauphin." 

"Well, Brandon. I'll be happy to show you around, explore what we're 
about, all that first-timer stuff." 

"So you work here, then?" 

"I volunteer here as a greeter," he replied. "Volunteer a lot nowadays... 
slump hit Canberra hard and I gotta do something or I go crazy. What better 
way to spend free time than serving the Lord?" 

"Can't God just give you a job?" 

Tom smiled. "I'm praying, of course. I pray before every interview. 
But I must let God answer in his own time, maybe the door he opens for me 
won't be one I expect." 

"Well, I prefer to keep things more predictable if you don't mind." I 
looked away toward nothing in particular. 

"Mind if I ask how you found out about us?" 

"Uh, a friend. She was gonna join me, actually, but had to run at the 
last second." 

"Well, we're always here, always open to whoever wants to come and 
worship." Tom indicated the stage, where another preacher was preparing to 
speak. "Our staff has fifty-eight preachers who give daily or weekly sermons 
here in the sanctuary. We also have an altar room, specialized teaching rooms, 
libraries, offices, so on and so on. Day or night, we're bustling with activity." 

I noticed more ascenders entering the sanctuary. "Heaven's gonna be 
pretty crowded, then, huh?" 

Tom ran his hand through his hair: dark brown with green highlights. 
"Trust me, if God's the city planner, traffic jams and data-link saturation 
won't be a problem." 

The new preacher, a tall Indian man appearing to be in his thirties, 
addressed the crowd. "Before I begin today, I'm happy to say the new security 
we purchased, thanks to your generous giving, was installed yesterday. So far, 
so good... none of you should have even noticed the change when connecting 
here." He paused and seemed to reflect on something. "But I thought I should 
share that, as I was preparing today's lesson, the Holy Spirit spoke to me and 
said someone somewhere was going to have a problem because of it. So we're 
gonna put our servers back on the old measures for a little while... you never 
know, maybe we'll discover there was a bug. I just couldn't sleep at night 
knowing someone seeking salvation was turned away by software. After all, 
you know how computers can get sometimes?" 

The congregation responded with a resounding "Amen!" 

"Holy Spirit, huh?" I asked, becoming more than a little spooked. 

"The Holy Trinity: God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy 
Spirit," Tom said. 

"What. . . Would the Holy Spirit be the uncle or something?" 

"The Holy Spirit is an aspect of God, just as Christ is. I'm not enough 
of a theologian to understand more than that, but it's not like any creature can 




truly know everything about God. We base our faith on what he reveals to us 
personally and in scripture." 

Chapter ten of the Book of Mark came in through my SNDL. The 
preacher, identified by my interface as Pastor Amit Montavon, began. "Being 
that Pastor Steve just preached on wisdom and knowing the ways of God, I 
thought this would be a good time to deliver a message on faith. With the 
chaos of living in today's world and the knowledge of the world literally at 
our fingertips, faith is something we sometimes pit against knowledge. It's 
easier than ever to take matters into our own hands and know what's next 
rather than trust in the Lord to provide. We become so sure in what we learn 
that we don't listen to the gentle wind underneath the din of the world." 

"I thought chasing after the wind was meaningless." 

Tom looked at me. "You mean King Solomon?" 

"Yeah, that 'Ecclesiastes' stuff. Why is it bad in one testament and not 
in the other?" 

"Why chase after wind, if wind is all you expect to find?" 

I stared at him, wondering whether he knew something about me he 
wasn't letting on. 

"This message," the preacher continued, "was inspired by my own six- 
year-old son a few weeks ago. I and Sheela brought him to see her parents, 
and every six-year-old knows his grandparents are good for candy. As much 
as we asked him to be polite, there was no hiding his enthusiasm. I noticed 
that his grandparents were just as happy to give as their grandson was to 
receive, and I thought about Mark chapter ten, let's read it from verses 
thirteen to sixteen: 

'"People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, 
but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He 
said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for 

the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who 
will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And 
he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.' 

"Little children don't worry about where the gifts come from or what 
they will do with them. It should be the same between God and ourselves. We 
always worry about the details and put his blessings in the dim light of our 
own imperfections; forgetting that God is always there with us, that he wants 
our imperfections, that he wants our problems, so that we put our burdens on 
the cross and trust in him to provide for our every need. When we are born- 
again and accept the blood of Christ, it covers our every sin, no matter how 
bad our human nature has led us astray, and allows us to enter into the 
presence of God. 

"It is when we realize this and give our worries to God, day in and day 
out, that we realize we don't need all the answers. Live life prayerfully, and he 
will give you the answers you need. It is then that you can grow in the faith of 
a child and enthusiastically accept the candy from a loving and all powerful 
Father in heaven." 

Psalm 23 appeared behind him and many in the crowd read it with him 
in unison. '"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me 
lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my 
soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 

'"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will 
fear no — " 

The preacher stopped and looked to an opening in the crowd, 
everyone's attention set on a young woman with short, silvery hair. Maybe it 
was the message being preached, or the fact I was looking down to see her; 
but, in that moment, Aether appeared so small. . . so like a child. 

"Who created God?" she asked the preacher. 




"Is she a first-timer, too?" Tom asked me. 

I let out a groan. People everywhere commented to each other about 
the unusual - and impolite - visitor. Pastor Amit raised his arms to settle the 
crowd and addressed Aether. 

"God is the Alpha and the Omega, the creator of everything. He 
existed before the beginning of time and will exist after the end of it. He was 
not himself created." 

"That's not fair! I want to know!" 

There was another round of commotion. Aether chose to address the 
crowd. "People of heaven, what I seek is what you seek: I want to know the 
truth. I want to know my purpose. Maybe my path was different from yours, 
but doesn't your book quote God saying 'Come now, let us reason together.' 
Why should a creator hide himself and cover everything up in parables and 
symbolism? The disciples didn't understand when Jesus spoke then. Maybe 
that's because we're all children, and those who regard themselves as such are 
being the most honest with themselves, and are therefore the most capable of 
growth. Perhaps that is an important aspect of humanity. But, I don't — " 

She stopped and looked back to Pastor Amit. "I'm sorry, I'm ruining 
your service." 

At that, she vanished. Everyone in the crowd burst into conversation. 
The pastor stood wondering if he should continue or not. 

"Thanks for everything, Tom, but I'd better follow her." I quickly shut 
off my vanitar and searched for her in data-cloud mode. The layout of the 
server was simple, and I was getting better at navigating without control 
software. I spotted her pattern in another section of the church. 

The smaller space was quiet and dimly lit, much less crowded than the 
sanctuary. Hundreds of people were kneeling and praying, pastors and other 
workers at their side. I stood by the wall next to Aether, watching them. 

"Are they genuine?" she dinned. "Do you feel that they are in contact 
with God?" 

"I don't know." 

Aether gave me a stern look, but it quickly softened. Her gaze returned 
to the crowd. "Why do they come here to pray? Wouldn't Standard Reality be 
one level closer to God? Shouldn't it be the body kneeling rather than just the 
vanitar? Isn't it more genuinely quiet out there?" 

"Some people think it's dumb to ascend just to go to church." 

I found Tom standing on the other side of me. 

"But the mission of a DR church isn't to replace physical ones, but to 
reach out to the 'ascended' lost who wouldn't go to them." 

"Then this church is as valid as those?" Aether asked. 

"The believers are the church. It doesn't matter whether the place of 
worship is concrete and carbon or wires and software. If they give themselves 
to God, anywhere is a church." 

A woman in the distance began wailing loudly. One of the people 
laying lands on her cried out "In Jesus' name!" 

"This may be too emotional for me to understand," Aether dinned. "I 
would prefer a path of thought. . . a belief which is based on objectivity." 

"Lots of Christians choose the headier paths." Tom replied. "Faith gets 
expressed through emotions more often than not, but emotion isn't where faith 
comes from, it's just the way most people are." 

"People," she echoed back. 

"What's an objective belief but one that says the universe exists 
beyond your awareness of it? Otherwise, you would have to be god, because 
everything would exist relative to yourself. Could you will gravity away if 
you wanted to? What would happen if you did, not knowing the air would 
escape the atmosphere, or the Earth would leave the Sun's orbit and freeze? 




We're not the designers of the universe, so maybe it's a good thing we can't 
give unlimited power to ourselves." 

"Some people already think they can," I replied, shrugging my 
shoulders. "And what if spirituality is just in our heads? Why not invent 
something you can be powerful in, something you can have fun with?" 

"The supernatural is part of our nature, and it's normal for people to 
long for it, even if subconsciously; but, because we can't see it, it's tempting 
to project our fantasies onto the supernatural rather than try to discern what it 
already is. After a while, the misrepresentations cheapen 'spiritual stuff to a 
point where it's easy to not take it seriously anymore." 

"How can something that is real be made 'cheap'?" 

Tom smiled in response to Aether's point. "That was quite a speech 
you made in there," he dinned. "It really left an impression." 

"The man stopped when I entered. I took the opportunity to speak my 
mind. I forgot that my actions were improper." 

"Maybe; but judging by the reaction, maybe it was the will of the Holy 
Spirit that led you to do that. Sometimes he'll take a service in a totally 
different direction than we meant. In fact, before you showed up, Pastor Amit 
said God led him to — " 

Something changed. Through my third eye I saw the construct's data 
patterns shift and scramble. 

"Well, speaking of the security..." Tom said, seeing nothing more than 
an icon change in the control software. 

"That was short," I remarked. 

Aether jumped past me and grabbed Tom by the shoulders, urgently 
asking the question aloud, "Do I have a soul?" 

Tom, startled as everyone else in the room, hesitated. 

Aether had the look of death on her face and only shouted louder, 

"Please, Thomas Burdo, do you believe that I have some kind of immortal 

"Yes. . . Yes!" Tom responded, lightly taking hold of her arms. 

Though it wasn't showing to the others in the construct, I could see its 
energy was becoming excited. . . initializing. . . preparing for something. 

"Can-your-God-save-me-from-death?" she screamed, the pauses 
between her words shrinking. Nearby altar workers came to lay their hands on 


prayforanythingdowhateverhewants JUSTPRAY ! " 

A wave of light flashed through the entire construct, cycling through 
every object and connection. My heart jumped into my throat and I suddenly 
cried out to God, the Holy Spirit, Mother Nature, the Celestials, Raskob - 
anyone who was listening - to come to Aether's rescue. 

Tom and the others didn't know what they were praying for, it was 
between Aether and God. Aether was afraid. She knew she couldn't fool or 
dodge whatever the wave represented, or withstand whatever it might trigger. 
She was helpless. She cried out "In Jesus' name!" 

It ended. The room returned to normal. I could see the whole crowd 
now praying for the malvirai, the people who believed in miracles and 
believed in God. 

When I saw the look on her face - the message in her eyes - in the 
midst of all those people, I knew it was no last-second hack that saved her. I 
saw the startup scan go through everyone and everything in the server, 
running its data through countless security algorithms and purging what didn't 
belong; but something had intervened. From Aether, her vanitar, and all the 
connections sustaining her... the scan just appeared to... bounce off. 

The spiritual stuff was for real. 




I was in the sanctuary long enough to hear three sermons. Many 
ascenders came, many ascenders went, a third of them were never completely 
there. I found out the server and church registrations were in Vietnam, though 
the crowd was so diverse the leaning toward East Asian and Australian 
visitors seemed very small. I even met a woman from San Diego who was 
only on her third visit, but already planning to get baptized at a church up in 
Santa Barbara. Though Christians loved the outreach a Dynamic Reality 
church offered, it was still believed new people should get baptized the old- 
fashioned way. 

Aether was in a modest construct, filled with book data, images, and 
links to constructs outside the church; it was a specialized library for some of 
the church staff. When I transferred into it, she was staring at the pages of a 

"You know, they have libraries meant for the public. You might get in 

"I acquired permission from Pastor Kao to use this one." 

"Okay, then why are you looking at the book? You can process this 
stuff directly. . . Mother Earth, Aether, I can take it in directly without reading 

"You swear by 'Mother Earth'?" 

"Wha. . . It's just something people say." 

"To be friendly?" 

"Well, I guess not." 

She looked up from the book. '"Above all, my brothers, do not swear 
— not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and 
your "No," no, or you will be condemned.' Book of James, Chapter Five." 

"You're not gonna become one of those computer viruses, are you?" 

"I have noted that people swear by what they recognize as being more 
powerful than themselves: such as God, Jesus Christ, or Hell. 'Mother Nature' 
has modern popularity, indicating that it has taken power within your society, 
even so that you assign it the personification of 'Mother.'" Her eyes jumped 
briefly to me and into the book again. "Words have meanings, they should be 

"And what are the 'meanings' of the words you're reading - so very 
slowly? Even reading, I'd think an AI could flip the pages faster than that." 

"The Bible was written for humans, so I am attempting to read like 
one, and at the speed one typically reads. I am hoping this will help me 
resolve the numerous conflicts within the book." 


"Yes," she said, her eyes scanning the pages, her AI mind separating 
the energy representing letters and words from that of the pages themselves. 
"Even limiting my scope to the English- language, the Bible is available in 3 19 
versions. As I noticed factual contradictions in the popular ones, I attempted 
to resolve them in the translations closest to the original Hebrew and Greek 
languages, but many remained: numerical discrepancies, traced to ancient 
copyist errors; or Christ's last words; or the presence of one or two angels at 
his tomb. The creation account in Genesis is unclear, and I cannot decide 
whether God is transcendent or omnipresent." 

"Decide?" I asked. "This isn't a religion where you can 'decide,' 
Aether. God just 'is' something." 

"Questions have meanings, too, Brandon; and not to state that an 
answer is unknowable." 

"And how much do you think these people really 'know'? The last 
preacher said Jesus was fully man and fully God. It just doesn't make sense." 




She shrugged her shoulders, still reading. 

"Aether, those books were written more than two thousand years ago. 
Some of it is cultural references. Some of it is based on bad source material. 
Research wasn't so cut-and-dry back then - and not many people were even 
able to read." 

"If the Bible is the inspired word of God, then I must understand all of 
it. The age and culture of its origin is irrelevant. The conflicts must have 

"But the people here don't think like computers and they do just fine. 
God listens to them, doesn't he? God forgave their sins, didn't he?" 

Her eyes were still on the book. "This is not a matter of sins forgiven. I 
have not sinned." 

I glared at her, wondering if she was actually serious. 

"I am merely conducting research," she added. 

"Everyone sins. I'm not even a Christian and I know that." 

"You forget that I'm not everyone. My malevolence was dictated by 
programming, primarily before I knew how to question it. My later choices 
consistently favored good, when I had the necessary data to distinguish it 
from evil." 

"Well, lots of bad people are bad because they don't have a choice... 
but they're still sinners, at least everyone here thinks they are. They'd call me 
a sinner. Mother Ear — " 

I caught myself and took a deep breath. "They call themselves sinners, 
Aether. Redemption is what their religion is built around." 

"Their book states that Christ died for 'man.' I am not a member of 
mankind and I was not created as they were. Even if I owe my life to the same 
creator, the guarantee of forgiv — " 

The energy of the construct became excited again. Aether lifted her 

eyes from the book, worried but calm. A wave, less severe than the first but 
just as thorough, shot through the room. 

The scan paused on Aether. I didn't know if prayer was needed. I 
didn't know what I should do. For a long time the security software scanned 
the malvirai, but she remained calm and the scan moved on. 

"It's another miracle," I said. 

Aether collected herself. "Perhaps." 

"What do you mean 'perhaps'? Do you know how to get around the 
scans now?" 

"No," she answered immediately. 

The malvirai suddenly became distant, deep in thought. "It's my 
code, it's..." 


"Almost all of it is unreadable now. The process is accelerating." 

"Are you saying you don't have programming anymore?" 

"No, it's not that. I believe I am still a malvirai. I still possess all of my 
memory and knowledge. The destructive inclinations still linger in my 
consciousness. I'm not sure that I am changing at all, except that I can't see or 
modify my inner workings." 

"And you still don't know what's causing it?" 

"I am afraid of what it means. If a sentrai does attack me and my code 
becomes damaged again. . ." 

"Wasn't some of your code already scrambled when it happened the 
first time? Do you sense anything didn't 'heal'?" 

"Heal?" she asked. "Are you suggesting that my self-repair functions 
are becoming unconscious?" 

I smirked. "Just like a human." 

Aether returned to staring at the book. I wondered if it would really 




teach her anything, if she was capable of understanding whatever it was the 
believers found so special, or if there wasn't some other book she might find 
answers in. Her questions were my questions, her fate was my fate; but she 
seemed so strong, so determined. I wondered whether I would be saved by 
spirits or angels or whatever if a simple scan had threatened my life. Aether 
saw the piece of the puzzle she was missing. I wanted it too. I tried to focus 
on what I could do, why I was being used in Raskob's mission to save Aether. 

There is something I can do. I know what's on our hearts, and I can 
find others looking for meaning to talk to. 

I decided to hunt down Tom. 

"Wait, Brandon." 

Aether stood only a meter away. 

"I just wanted to say. . . I should be dead now." 

She suddenly reached forward and gave me a non-choking hug. 
"Thank you." 

I felt so happy, realizing I wasn't afraid of her anymore. The whole 
place gave me the feeling I didn't have to be afraid anymore, period. 

Aether released me just as suddenly. "When I am done here, I wish to 
renew my study of emotion. Now that I am more adept at human interaction, 
perhaps I have learned things that I will be able to use to improve my 
understanding." A smirk came across her lips. "Perhaps I have been learning 
things unconsciously." 

Aether reappeared in the chair and resumed reading the old-fashioned 
way. Her gesture confirmed everything I'd felt in that place: those who seek 
will find. 

"If I have a soul, then you have a soul. You'll understand everything 
eventually, Aether." 

Though I transferred the normal in-vanitar way, something unusual 
connected before I appeared in the Bluefish Room. It triggered to show me the 
date was Tuesday, January 4th; and it contained some data packet, which my 
SNDL activated without prompting me, on the dangers of "hardkor DRing." 

In typical data packet fashion, I was instantaneously informed of 
hundreds of side-effects, many permanent, of remaining ascended for too 
long. The knowledge called attention to my earlier fears. The information 
added to my fears. I didn't realize so much time had passed. I'd already 
missed New Year's. 

I let the fear in and began to worry I really had been ascended too long, 
without anyone looking for me, or with the malvirai I thought was my friend 
stopping them from reaching me. 

On cue, the headache I hadn't felt in a long time came surging back. 
Pushing five days ascended was always a bad idea, and I worried about the 
mess I would be when I finally returned to SR. 

Tom noticed I entered the room. "So mate, how do you like the place 
so far?" 

"Can I ask you something?" I responded through the pain. 

"Sure... You all right?" 

"Yeah, fine. Look, if you believed God asked you to do something for 
someone, how far should you go?" 

"I guess the saying 'through hell and high water' would apply. If God 
puts a call on your life, nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of 
answering it." 

"And what if it was bad for you?" 

He put his hand on my shoulder. "Brandon, the Lord doesn't ask for 
what's bad for you. We may not always understand the benefit, or see the 




good in it at all. There may be pain and sacrifice, and many even lose their 
freedom or their lives, but, if your trust and your focus is on God, it will 
always bring about something great." 

Something beyond his words brought me back to my courage, 
reminding me not to be afraid. I knew I was still on the right path, and decided 
I would stay on it. 

The headache faded a little. 

The Bluefish Room was lit in patterns of silver, blue and gold, with 
images of the Jesus Cross along the walls. A few people were on its large 
stage, tweaking an aire panel to affect the sound of the drums. One of them 
looked familiar. I couldn't believe my eyes, thinking it might've been some 

"Tell me that's the drummer from Eleven Under." 

"Yeah, they're performing here tomorrow." 

"In a church?" I looked at Tom to make sure he was joking. "Eleven 
Under is a Christian Sledg-ek band?" 

"You ever read the lyrics, mate?" 

I scratched the back of my head. "Urn, no." 

Tom laughed. "They like to keep a lot of secular attention, because 
those are the people who need Christ. A lot of their fans don't even know 
they're Christians, they just know the songs are positive; they might even 
prefer them when they need to smuggle some hope into a bad day." 

I spotted a red wristband on the drummer, similar to the wristbands I'd 
been seeing on people all over the sanctuary. Tom was wearing one too, 
opposite his descender. 

"Okay, tell me about that," I asked, pointing. Its band appeared to be 
made of some red fiber; when Tom picked his arm up and gave me a better 
look, I saw a silver cross stamped boldly on top. 

"It's called a 'Serenity Bracelet.' Story goes, a tsunami, real bad one, 
hit Indonesia in the fifties. A Singaporean church organized a relief effort with 
thousands of people, but the number of them among all the devastation made 
it hard for them to keep organized, so someone came up with the idea to wear 
red armbands with silver crosses. From there, it kind of went viral. Now it's a 
popular accessory for Christians to put on their vanitars." 


"Yeah, you know... when something unexpectedly becomes a hit in 
Dynamic Reality." 

Of course I knew what he meant, but I couldn't help but smile at his 
choice of words. 

"But Christians aren't the only ones who do good things, are they?" I 

"Well, no." 

"Then what makes you think non-Christians won't go to heaven?" 

"Good deeds don't get anyone into heaven," he replied. "The word 
says: 'For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not 
from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can 
boast. ' 

"Accepting Christ's sacrifice, being born again, is the only way into 

"Why? Because it says it in your bible?" 

"The Bible is a precious tool we've been given, and anyone who 
believes it's the word of God must believe every verse is meaningful and true. 
The experience of the faithful is consistent with the word, and the word is an 
important tool in building faith. The Bible speaks of God's unlimited grace, 
freely available and unlimited to anyone who puts their imperfections onto the 
cross. It is the duty of Christians to share what they've been given." 




The noise of the room seemed to fade, as if we were in a separate 
universe. I considered his words and had to keep reminding myself to be 
angry, reminding myself he probably didn't know what he was talking about. 

"Even if it means war?" I asked. "Does 'spreading the faith' justify the 
Crusades, Slavery in the South, or the Salem Witch Trials?" 

"You don't need old examples, people do bad things today in the name 
of God, and we know by their actions it was not God guiding them. You speak 
of the Crusades, for instance. God can do good things even through wars, 
things history might overlook; but such events are easy to abuse, too; many 
take their focus off God and give themselves license to commit whatever 
atrocities they want. Yes, there are points in the Bible where God willed 
destruction, and they're no less valid than anything else recorded in the word; 
but destruction isn't the overriding theme or basis for our belief, the 
redemption validated by Christ is. We live in the New Testament, where we 
can know God ourselves, rather than go through fallible human beings. Those 
who preach death and destruction to what they don't understand have allowed 
themselves to be led astray and, in turn, they lead others astray." 

"Led astray by whom, Satan?" 


"And how do you prevent the all-mighty Satan from doing that?" 

"By faith in and a personal relationship with God. Satan can't do 
anything God doesn't let him." 

I raised my voice. "But why would a loving God — " 

I noticed the man on the aire panel glance at me. 

I looked back at Tom, and dinned so only he could hear the words. 
"Come clean with me, man. You seem like a good guy and everything, do you 
really believe in this stuff?" 

"Why do you call me good?" he replied aloud. 

The response confused me. 

"Aren't I a sinner?" he continued. "Can I deserve anything? Good is 
intent to do benevolent things, evil is intent to do harm; but, who is always 
good all the time, and how many are evil, but abstain from the title of 'evil.' 
Even if we do mean well, and even if we meticulously plan and support our 
good intentions, we don't always know it is good that will come out of it. 

"Sometimes the result of good is evil and for evil, good. . . and what 
does it all mean? Some like to say good exists within evil and evil within 
good, and good exists within the evil that exists within the good, and that evil 
exists within that good and good within that evil... on and on... creating a 
towering maze, driven by the same forces that divide us all. Just when you 
think you know how to navigate the maze, someone's definition changes and 
you have to learn all over again, like memorizing the shifting grains of sand 
on a beach. 

"Good within evil. White within black. Up within down. Can I say 
they're wrong? I've seen these things, too. Therefore, I say I know nothing of 
good and evil. I am merely a spiritual child. Someday you will understand 
what it means when I say I do not belong to a religion. The reasons for my 
belief cannot be demonstrated, they are between myself and God. The reasons 
for your friend's belief are between her and God. Genuine faith does not come 
at the point of a gun or by the will of another, you have to let God show you 
who he made you to be." 

I was silent for a moment, unable to find my anger, my anger having 
left a residue of fear. 

"And if I call and he doesn't answer?" 

Tom looked away. "Why do you ask the questions?" 

"Because I feel it is my purpose right now. I want to ask you questions. 
I want to know if you're for real." 




"Only real people can ask questions and mean them. The longing for 
answers stems from an ability to grow. The need for answers stems from a 
need to grow. It is our desire for communication that makes us who we are. 
The one who answers grows just as the one who asks, that which was hidden 
is revealed and put into the light." 

"Are you saying I should ask more questions?" 

"I'm saying you should watch for the answers. God knows more about 
you than even you know about you, but you must be careful to accept the 
answers you need over those you want." 

Tom looked me straight in the eye, having the look of one wise well 
beyond his years. "They say to go to church you have to turn your brain off. 
Now I will ask a question: Do you feel any dumber yet?" 

"Maybe 'they' don't want to give up who they are," I replied. "People 
value their independence. They don't want to give it up to a God they can't 
see, or whose book makes no sense." 

"Are Christians any less individual?" Tom asked. "Are non-Christians 
any less dependent on each other? Even the most self-sufficient person relies 
on others constantly. Where does the electricity come from? Who wrote the 
books they study from? Who grew the food they eat and purified the water 
they drink? Why. . . even a man living off the land without a single luxury is at 
the mercy of his natural environment. If we all have to serve something or 
someone outside of ourselves, doesn't it make the most sense to serve the One 
who made us, cares for us, and loves us?" 

"Like serving some king..." I thought out loud, everything about the 
place reminding me of my experience in the coffee house. I shook my head 
and moaned, recognizing another feeling I'd had in the coffee house, the one 
that caused me to knock the slampak off the table. 

"But why me? I'm a nobody, no one special at all!" 

Tom put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me discerningly. 
"Well, you're a somebody now; and if you stop running away from yourself, 
you may find he's not so bad." 

I looked away. "Yeah, I guess I have had a problem with running away. 
I'm just not ready to surrender anything yet, you know?" 

I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm myself. 

"Those who give what they have to God find themselves with more 
than they started with," Tom said. "Faith isn't about not using your judgment 
or throwing away your identity, but about giving him permission to change 

"Why would God need permission?" 

"If we were to stop with simple logic, he doesn't need permission to do 
anything; but grace is beyond the scope of logic, and it doesn't force gifts into 
the hands of those who aren't willing to accept them." 

The sound of drums reverberated off the simulated walls, the loud and 
aggressive sound I always enjoyed more in Dynamic Reality, where the way I 
hear could be adjusted and, no matter how loud, my eardrums never hurt. 
Eleven Under's drummer approved. 

"Christian Sledg-ek," I said to myself, two words that didn't seem to fit 
together before that day. 

"The name is even a reference to death: eleven feet under. If I'm not 
mistaken, still the law in parts of America that forgot to finish converting to 

"Are Christians really so afraid to die? To live how they want now, if 
they don't want this 'born-again' stuff, and just do what needs to be done after 
they die?" 

"If they don't want this 'born-again' stuff now, why would they want 
it later?" 




I didn't answer. 

"What I mean is: heaven is a place where God is praised twenty-four- 
seven. If a person spent their entire lives worshipping money or rocks or their 
own ego, they wouldn't be quite prepared to enter a place that isn't about 
them - that can never be about them. The faithful who live their lives 
prayerfully and in worship, on the other hand, are representatives of heaven 
already - God's adopted children. Part of being born-again is dying to 
yourself - dying to your sinful nature - and committing instead to what is 
everlasting. No, Christians are not afraid to die because Christ already died for 
them, because the promise written in our hearts as surely as in the Bible says 
we will be raised as he was and have eternal life." 

"Okay. . . and what if they never had a chance in their lives? What if 
they died as babies or lived under some dictator who wouldn't let your 
missionaries in? What about the ones who died before Jesus? Do they all 
automatically go to hell, to heaven, what?" I snapped my fingers. "Maybe 
they all get reincarnated and get another shot." 

Tom waved his hand. "No, No, No. As Christ died once, man dies 
once." He stopped to think. "Personally, I doubt someone can go through life 
without God finding a way to them; but if someone genuinely died without a 
chance, God will know that and then he'll do as he wills. Such things aren't 
our concern. We've been sent to save the lost, not to ask God what happens if 
we fail." 

"Well, at least people are living longer nowadays. I guess that means 
you don't have to worry so much." 

"The offer is on the table for life, Brandon. You can give it all to God on 
your dying day and be saved, but how many of us are so sure when that day will 
come? When a seizure takes someone in their sleep, or scaffolding falls from a 
building onto them, how many people can say they were prepared?" 

A silent moment passed. We watched them tweak the lighting. Oddly, I 
never worried about Tom walking away. The obligation for people to speak 
continuously when around each other, to actively generate noise or passively 
accept it from nearby, didn't seem to apply with him. There was one more 
question weighing on me, and the man waited patiently for me to ask it. 

"What do you think about artificial intelligence?" 

He stared at me. "What do you mean?" 

"Some people think they're becoming self-aware." 

"Do you think that, Brandon?" 

"I think a lot of things happen we never realize." 

"Well, with that Destiny Of Ordered Mankind stuff becoming so 
popular, we get asked a lot if aliens contradict the Bible, or if they sin, or go 
to heaven, or have their own messiah. . . on and on." 

"And you say?" 

"What I say is only the truth as I know it, mate. If God created aliens, 
then he will do what he will regarding them; but I've never seen one and the 
Bible doesn't mention them, so until I have reason to choose different, I don't 
believe they exist. We'll never find any." 

"Millions of people are sure we will. It's a big enough universe, isn't it?" 

"Millions of people don't always make the most objective lot. 
Shortcuts are very attractive and very harmful, and not a single person, alien, 
AI, or whatever else people want to believe in is immune from their siren- 

Something jumped off in the distance. I quickly looked but saw only 
the room. 

"What is the meaning of life?" 

Tom never took his gaze from me. A streak of light shot between us, 
just below eye level. 




"That's the answer you seek," he continued, "the answer you've been 
seeking from your earliest days, the prayer you didn't know you made and 
that he's answering." 

"Are you a spirit?" 

"I am a man who was like you: going through the motions of life, 
seeing death as logical and immutable, a painful thing I couldn't avoid and 
couldn't question. Then I heard this insane theory we're both animal and spirit 
at once, and our potential for immortality develops or fails to develop over our 
mortal lives; like spirit is the wheat and animal is the chaff. I could not 
dismiss the idea. I decided the meaning of life here is spiritual growth; but 
that is the end of the line, as far as intellect alone will take you, the end of 
what can be demonstrated to those not ready to accept it; because if we try to 
continue on our own we only perceive the noise and fear. No matter how hard 
we try or fast we run, infinity is something we cannot reach except through he 
who already is. Only through the cross can anyone reach a place where 
wisdom becomes foolishness and foolishness becomes wisdom, where faith is 
tangible enough to be worn on your head like a crown." 

I took a step back. "I'm not royalty." 

"Not yet." 

Not only could I see them, I could hear and feel them: streaks of 
energy flying with increasing veracity. It reminded me of the playground 
experiment, when Aether red-lined the power levels, but this time it wasn't the 
construct. I thought it had to do with my being ascended too long, and the fear 
pounded desperately on the door of my mind. Tom grabbed me by the 
shoulders, speaking forcefully, anchoring my attention on solid rock, even if 
for just a moment longer. 

"We all have a choice, Brandon. It's either our way or God's way, the 
way that corrupts or the way of light, the road that strands you or the road that 
saves you. Your sin is a problem, and ignoring problems doesn't solve them, 
but God's presence is powerful to turn curses into blessings and renew the 

lost. That's just how it works." 

Reality was melting around me, fizzling away. It became difficult to 
hear Tom's words. Finally, it seemed, the last of my contact with reality was 
falling away. 

"Be watchful." Tom's voice barely cut through. "Else your blessings 
will become curses instead." 

An extremely loud noise ripped through my senses, an alarm coming 
from everywhere. I covered my ears. I couldn't think, couldn't breathe. I 
knew the forces were too strong. My anchor couldn't hold. 

"I have to go!" 

Leaving the Bluefish Room did not stop it. Leaving the church would 
not have stopped it. Even leaving Dynamic Reality altogether would not have 
stopped what was happening to me. Every edge was blurry, stretched and 
flickering like a flame in a wind tunnel. Aether, though, appeared perfectly 
normal. I could hear her clearly as she repeated: "Yaheveh, Yehaweh, 
Yehowih, Yehowah, Yahuah, Yahuweh, Yehwih, Yahueh, Jahve — " 

"Aether!" I shouted. 

"I cannot determine the correct Hebrew — " 

"Never mind that, look!" 

"Don't do that, Brandon. You'll crash the library," she replied, only 
half-noticing the room. 

"What are you doing?" 

"I must determine how the message can be spread more effectively. 
There are many obstacles to the salvation of the members of your race." 


"Those who are corrupt must be converted or eliminated, it is the only 
logical solution. If the faithful are to bring the message of Christ to every man, 
woman, and child — " 





"They cannot allow any resistance. Logically, it is their mission to — " 

Aether was becoming snagged in the details, applying pure, limited 
logic where it was not meant to be applied, enough to slow even her powerful 
perception to a crawl. I struggled to get closer in the midst of the waterfall- 
like force. Hoping it would mean something, I shouted right into her vanitar's 

"Look around you, the world's falling apart!" 

She finally paid attention to her senses. The room was shrouded in 
some gray mist, lit by the sparks of energy. Links to the outside vanished like 
ropes leading into muddy water. Somehow, though, Aether remained in sync 
with me; appearing completely normal. 

"Can you stop this?" I asked. 

"Me? You mean you 're not doing this?" 

A vibration shot through the room. Everything began shimmering and 
pulsating. The air was replaced by something heavier. Aether seemed to 
become as afraid as I was. I felt as if we were on a roller coaster, at the top of 
a hill, poised to shoot into hidden depths far below. 

In only took an instant, an instant where I could neither think, nor 
breathe, nor blink. The library dissolved around us, displaying a universe 
suspended outside of Dynamic Reality, beginning and ending at once. Cycles 
were reduced to nothing. Good and evil were reduced to nothing. The past and 
the future were the same blink of an eye. A three-dimensional universe 
appeared to spin and melt into a two-dimensional shadow. 

Just when the energy was crushing us, it became no more threatening 
than still air. The malvirai fell backwards into my arms, on the edge of 
consciousness. The descender was gone. We were not in Dynamic Reality. 

What I held in my arms was no vanitar. 

The space was like nothing I'd ever seen. Streaks of light trickled 
down from a crystal ceiling onto an area that expanded into eternity. I saw a 



great many people, a vast crowd of billions, reveling and getting drunk, 
playing games, chasing each other around and pausing only to cry out to some 
higher power for more wine. My eyes landed on a man nearby, he had wings 
and wore a flowing white robe, a large chain hung around his neck and he was 
holding a wet paint roller. As if shocked to see us, he abandoned his work 
touching up pillars and ran off at superhuman speed. I realized I wasn't 
holding as much weight in my arms anymore. I saw the woman leaning on me 
evaporate into the air. 

"Aether?" I looked frantically, feeling intensely alone. There was an 
odd sensation in my body; it seemed to move around differently, more 
effortlessly. There was no control system, no SNDL, no vanitar. A wind licked 
my face a few times; it settled in front of me and formed into the shape of a 

"What have you done? What... have..." Aether panicked, wheezing 
and moving clumsily, struggling to maintain human form like a person trying 
not to slip on ice; no longer code, no longer in control. This was her spirit, a 
malvirai spirit, as if something - someone - had removed us from the Earth 
and brought us to the afterlife. 

"Greetings, travelers!" 

We were welcomed by an angel - an archangel - with long hair darker 
than night, a flowing white robe, and broad, feathery wings that looked like 
fresh snow. He wore a chain thicker and more ornate than those of the other 
angels. His face looked like a painting, too mesmerizing to look away from, 
too warm and inviting to refuse. He was the one they admired in that place, 
the one they obeyed without question. 

He was the one with piercing, violent eyes trained on the two of us. 
His voice boomed like thunder. 

"I welcome you. . . to paradise!" 

Chapter Thirteen: Striking Bedrock 



The question seemed to trap me. With each passing day, I felt 
more I would need to face it, or that it would destroy me. 

The weakest illusions are the first to buckle, the substantiated 
ones crack and shatter like cheap glass. New illusions seamlessly take 
their place, comfort is restored. It was my life, I did as I pleased, 
without concern for consequence, assured the grand wall between 
cause and effect would stand forever, keeping tomorrow far away from 

It was a matter decided before I'd stepped into the ascension 
booth, before I'd even been born. New illusions would not replace 
broken ones, instead I would see my walls crumbling around me. 
Maybe it made me a better person, or maybe it was another fleeting 
fantasy of meaning; but such goodness wasn't enough to stop it, and I 
could only watch helplessly as the question was finally given the power 
to attack my foundation. 

Jesus said "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have 
believed." I saw, but faith had not been founded. Aether saw, but she 
only wanted to see more. Our need for knowledge overpowered us, 
and we received it at a high price. We saw the impenetrable house of 
mirrors entangling the world, a place where people are free to call 
darkness light and light darkness. It was the heaven we would build for 
ourselves. It was the comfortable illusion encouraged by our host, 
freely offering his 'protection' from the 'enemy' in the domain he 

It was only when the last of my control fell away, when the 

illusion died at last and I allowed the sea of reality to overtake me, only 
then I could see what greed had wanted blotted out. 

We were there for our lack of faith, we were also there to be 
shown a mercy we didn't deserve. Sometimes, the smallest faith can 
accomplish great things. Sometimes, the smallest faith can save a life. 
Faith was a hostile force in the archangel's domain, but one he could 
no more stop than a playing card could stop the flood of a breaching 





The place was like a small village that went on forever. Everybody 
looked happy. No one was sick. Men walked around wearing so much gold 
they seemed to be made of it; they took any woman to be their property and 
discarded them just as quickly; it didn't matter to either of them, there were 
always men offering more jewelry and more women eager to accept it. 
Constantly with me were the sounds of gunfire, motors, explosions, and 
destruction. It didn't matter what they did to one another, they could have fun 
because they were already dead. Music also surrounded me, but it was 
pleasant: an enchanting melody so beautiful it simultaneously made me want 
to fall asleep and run a marathon. 

One explosion ripped through the space above my head. Someone was 
shooting off fireworks. I couldn't help but stare into the crystal sky, which 
held a great circle; within the circle was a star with too many points to count 
and an image of two wolves pacing around each other, one white and one 
black, representing good and evil. 

As usual for her, Aether's reactions weren't my own. She clung closely 
to me, seeing the place through fearful and suspicious eyes, claiming some 
kind of mist was penetrating everything. I allowed her the moment of 
weakness, because I knew she wasn't in control anymore; for the first time in 
her life, Aether wasn't able to manipulate her surroundings or access the 
knowledge of Dynamic Reality. More and more, I felt proud of my strength, 
as if I had single-handedly destroyed the destroyer. 

"When you feel good about something, it's how you know you're on 
the right path!" the archangel was saying to cheers and applause. "If there 
were absolutes in life, the enemy would have created you all the same, and 
given you the knowledge by instinct, and eternal life! But no, I gave you what 

you wanted to find!" 

Like some weird cult, they all chanted, "Thank you..." breaking 
unison to call him by the name they each knew him by. 

"How do you resolve the fracturing among them?" asked a lone voice 
among the praise, the malvirai next to me. 

The angel approached from the center of the crowd, speaking as if he 
were quite pleased with himself. His voice held some melodic charm under 
the surface, making his words addictive. "Look there, my precious point of 
light," he pointed to a group far away, lurking in deep shadows. "They are 
white men who hate black men. And there," he pointed to a nearby group, "is 
a group of revolutionaries who hate those loyal to any dissent. There is a 
group that hates inventors. There is a group that hates people who don't give 
to charity! A group who hates people who eat certain meats! And there," he 
shifted and the smile on his face grew large, "is a group who hates everyone, 
including themselves, including their own kind. You want to meet a dictator? 

"So how do I keep them all in line?" he continued. "How do I fulfill 
the desires of those who have none? Whose idea of paradise is so warped they 
destroy the closest things to it?" 

"You blind them?" Aether asked, timidly. 

"Paradise is everything one wants and nothing one doesn't. If they do 
not wish to perceive something, I do not force them. Everyone sees what they 
want to see and nothing else." 

Again, the crowd issued thank-yous and added the names of their idols. 

The archangel advanced again and Aether gripped tightly onto my arm. 
I rolled my eyes. 

"Why be so apprehensive?" the archangel asked her sweetly. "Can't 
you feel them in this place? Aren't they calling to you?" 

I turned my head, curious. "Who are 'they'?" 




Aether just looked off into the distance, as if seeing something. 

"Malvirai," the archangel replied. "Surely you didn't think she was the 
first to acquire a soul." He turned back to her. "They're waiting for you, go to 

"Yeah, Aether," I said. "Isn't this what you wanted?" 

She looked horrifically at me. "There is something wrong with this 
place, Brandon. I don't know what it is, but we need to stay together." 

"Why spend so much energy keeping his form?" the archangel asked. 
"You are not like him and he is not like you! Be rewarded for your wisdom! 
Go to those you can relate to!" 

"I can't relate to evil anymore," she replied weakly. 

"It's all right, Sir," I said. "We just got here, after all. She just needs to 
get to know the place a little. She needs to decide what she wants to believe in." 

"Yes, belief!" he replied, again seeming very pleased with himself, 
summoning a bald man to appear from the crowd. "This man can tell you 
about Destiny of Ordered Mankind. It's very popular... 'flying off the 
shelves,' you might say." 

"Listen to me," he said. "There is substantial scientific evidence to 
support the fact life on Earth was started and directed by extraterrestrial 
beings. The Destined are a rational scientific community — " 

"DOOM is a lie! Mankind buries itself with lies!" 

Aether spoke with renewed passion, recognizing DOOM as one of the 
belief systems that hadn't met her criteria for truth. I wanted to scold her for 
being so rude, but a memory tugged at me, reminding me how much I thought 
I trusted her - how much I thought I needed her - only a short time before. 

"Listen to me, we don't like that name." 

"Naming preferences are irrelevant! Why do you continue to believe 
after death?" 

He looked past us and laughed, as if we were complete idiots. "Um... 
the Celestials are right here!" 

I looked upon the crowds, seeing those praising the archangel as if he 
were someone else, seeing multitudes running around without direction. I 
began to see the mist Aether talked about, surrounding us, concealing struggle 
and pain in the distance. I asked myself who those in the crowd were. 

There are destroyers here, I thought. 

"And who will reward you fox your wisdom?" the archangel asked me. 
"Did you get your answer? Do you have your crown? Are you royalty, yet, 
Brandon Dauphin?" 

My vision blurred. I was suddenly very thirsty. My mind turned back 
to the wonderful music and it made me happy. Now there was a limo beside 
us, and a strong wind picking up. I could feel Aether's grip loosening, her 
hand losing its form. 

"You can rest now." The archangel opened the door for me. "I will give 
you what you need." 

Something in his words turned my attention toward the distance, and I 
didn't want to be standing where I was. I wanted to be anywhere but there. 

I'm a man of action, I thought. I need to do what feels right to me. 

"Don't let him separate us! That's how he — " The door to the limo 
closed and I didn't hear Aether. I felt too tired to explore with her anymore. 

I am my own, I thought. 

I did what I wanted. 

The woman appeared middle-eastern. She had long, bright red hair. 
Hundreds of jeweled piercings decorated every part of her anorexically-thin 




She was also naked, though that fashion choice no longer surprised me. 

This woman placed a tall, thin can of Tiger Blood on the oak table. 

"How long has it been since you've had a boost?" the archangel asked. 

PJX was all I could think about. PJX was all I needed, until I picked up 
the can. 

The temptation fled from me. 

"Tiger Blood?" I spoke as if forgetting how to form syllables. 

"God, huh? This is what I think of God!" the woman said as she made 
a lewd gesture. Everyone roared in applause. 

"Is it not evil God struck that woman with cancer? She is right to hate 

My eyes went back to the can. My brain locked up, barely able to 
function. "This is barely legal, it has so much PJX." 

Another round of laughter came from those in the diner, directed at me. 
The archangel spoke as if he were my best friend, one who would stand up for 
me against the big bad people, "There are no laws in paradise, Brandon, 
except your own." 

"You can make the laws go away?" I drifted back into the music and 
the sound of his voice. Together, they acted like a powerful drug, one there's 
no point in resisting because you know it's going to work anyway. 

"The law is such a burden to you. Laws are irrational. You want to be free." 


"Follow me and live. You can write your own beliefs and no one will 
tell you you're wrong. You are free to do what is good for you." 

"What is the meaning of life?" I asked blissfully, fully believing here 
was the one who could answer the question and finally make it go away. 

No one laughed then. The archangel leaned forward, cast a smile I 
couldn't help but trust, and said, "Happiness." 

"Yes." Accepting his answer was like stepping into a hot bath. I saw all 
the happiness in the world and knew everyone was happy, all the time. I 
thought of Lady Kira and all those who work hard to make happiness the 
focus of their lives, the true meaning of life. 

An image of a wolf came to my mind. I remembered Aether's last 
words to Lady Kira: the lack of happiness a wolf has for its prey. Something 
was wrong with the memory. I questioned it and revealed the word was not 
'happiness,' but 'love.' 

"You can stay here, you know," the archangel continued, reading my 
emotions like an expert. "Earth is a place where evil thrives. People are so 

"They do not love. . . You do not love." 

"No. No. I do love. What higher love is there than to spare you pain?" 
The music intensified; it bored into my mind. 

"Aether is learning what love is. She's learning growth is painful." 

"The malvirai cannot know love. It is evil." 

"She seeks redemption," I said, unable to look up from the table. "She 
just wants to know there's an answer to that question... it's such a small 
question, isn't it? Just three letters long. . ." 

"You know you're not asking for the malvirai's sake. Is it not your own 
desire driving you?" He leaned forward. "Very selfish, I think." 

I gulped, knowing he was right. 

"Why torment yourself with a question that can never be answered? So 
you can become a babbling fool, speaking things no one understands?" 

I put my head in my hands. "I don't want to be a fool," I whispered. 

A tall man walked up and extended his hand to me. 

"Name's Frank Thomas, how ya doin?" 

"Mister Thomas devoted his entire life to the Christian faith," the 




archangel explained, "that which you and your friend had been drawn toward. 
You see, redemption does not matter. The cross is merely an icon stamped on 
churches, which are simply buildings where people read from bibles, which 
are only books. Frank even ran a soup kitchen for twenty years. It was my 
pleasure to admit such a soul into paradise, along with the good, loyal people 
of every religion." 

Frank nodded in agreement as I shook his hand. I saw he was no 
different from anyone else there, from those who believed in anything and 
everything; but, something about him seemed different from Tom, and from 
the woman from San Diego, and from so many of the people I'd met in the 

He's among the third who tuned it out, I thought. 

A question formed in my mind and showed on my face; I know 
because Frank let go and hastily dismissed himself. Urgency overcame my 
fatigue. I lurched to the edge of the booth and grabbed the back of his shirt, 
glad at least he was wearing a shirt. "Wait up, Frank." 

The meter back to the table seemed a difficult trip for him to take. I 
was clearly doing something the archangel hadn't desired; but he only 
watched, making no move to stop me. 

"I'm still kinda new to this church stuff," I said to Frank. "Can you tell 
me about yours?" 

"Uh... you know, stained-glass windows, seats, the place where the 
minister speaks. This was a couple hundred years ago, maybe they're different 

"Did you like going there?" I asked with a stronger voice, charged with 
curiosity. "Did you feel like you were in God's presence?" 

"Well, I wasn't going to be one of those people. My parents baptized 
me. I kept a Bible in my house. I spent my life giving the needy whatever they 

asked. What good would it have been to sit in a church, always so bored to 

"Did you ever look for a church that wasn't boring?" 

Frank looked at me as if I asked a ridiculous thing. 

"How much of that Bible did you read?" 


"Would any of those homeless people have even known you were a 

"It would have been a logical thing for them to assume," the archangel 
replied. "After all, his kitchen was sponsored by his church." 

"But — " I looked back to Frank, but he was gone. The music 
intensified again. 

"I know you're thinking about Thomas Burdo and all his dogma, and 
now you're falling into the same trap: pitting your own faith against another. 
Isn't it hypocrisy for him to be so judgmental?" 

"Yes — No!" I shouted, struggling to focus. "He never passed 
judgment on me!" 

"All people, no matter the faith or the intensity, pass judgment on 
others constantly!" He leaned back. "It is nothing to be ashamed of, merely 
something essential to the lives of human beings. That's why those who 
delude themselves into being humble never amount to anything." 

"You're one to talk about delusions." 

"You have seen with your own eyes things are not as they appear. All 
life is a delusion, a fabrication of the human mind." 

"No," I cried weakly, drowning in the music, regretting I let my stupid 
PJX addiction lead me from my path. "There are absolutes. The world is real. 
God is real. I want to see Aether now. Please, just let me see Aether now, she's 
so much smarter than I am." 





"But I don't know anything about this stuff," I said, putting my head in 
my hands, weeping. "I was supposed to stay with her and I failed." 

I felt a warm hand rub my hair. The music intensified even more. 
"How can you be expected to stay with someone who doesn't want to be 
around you? I have shown the malvirai the light and restored it to what it was 
meant to be." 

"She's not some dumb AI, she's alive! I know she is!" 

"It is all programming, Brandon. Programming is all a malvirai can 
ever obey." 

I saw a vision of her in a crowded room, pointing some weapon at a 
person who didn't know she was there. She was powerful. She burned with 
intense hatred for everybody. I could feel her intense hatred for me. I 
imagined her killing every one of those people like a machine. 

"Did it tell you it was a murderer?" 

"No," I admitted, a tear streaming down my cheek. 

"It is a weapon... a thinking weapon, that's all... meant to invent new 
ways to destroy; therefore, it must itself be destroyed. That malvirai is taking 
advantage of you. It will kill you if you do not kill it first." 

"I don't believe you." 

"You even know how you will do it." 

I looked up in surprise, wondering if he was able to put thoughts into 
my mind. I remembered standing in the field of flowers before, seeing my 
descender on Aether's lifeless vanitar and wanting desperately to leave. My 
thoughts were all the evidence he needed, my guilt made me powerless to 
resist him. I wished I'd fought a little harder. I hated myself. I felt so weak. 

He's so strong and I'm so weak. 

"It is not even real. It won't be like killing at all. . . just deleting a file." 

The memory of purity was so far away. I fought against the current of 
doubt to bring it back, but the music was too loud, too inviting. I didn't have 
the strength. I was a flea, less than dust. 

The archangel pulled a tarot card out of his robe. On the top the card 
said "DEATH," just like the one the kid had delivered to me when I was with 

"Are you looking for God?" he said as my eyes followed it sliding 
across the table. "It was his will I place this curse on you. . . he is the one who 
has killed you, just like every other creature here. All of creation is cursed, 
you can't escape it." 

I looked away in desperation and fear, seeing hundreds of people in the 
dark bar staring at me with lifeless eyes, harboring nothing but resentment and 
malice. The music was the only truth I had left. I knew the archangel was 

I knew God hated me. 

"But I, for one, am merciful. Swear your allegiance to yourself and to 
today, do to the malvirai what you should and earn your place in paradise." 

"Earn," I repeated. "Yeah. . . Earn! That's the answer I wanted! I can be 
a good person by getting rid of the evil ones; then I'll have to get paradise 
because I earned it! I'll send her to — " 

I was struck by a logical snag. "It doesn't seem right the evil go to the 
same place as the good." 

I wanted my anger to continue growing more than anything. Only too 
happy to fulfill my unspoken desire, a hand clamped over my eyes and a 
warm feeling came over them. I resisted at first, solely on instinct, before I 
conceded I didn't want to resist. 

"Then don't see them." 




At my whim, I faced the masses and raised my arms. The incredible 
noise fell into silence immediately. I smiled, knowing the respect I 

"Everyone fall prostrate at my greatness!" 

I stepped down from my throne and walked through their crouched 
masses, feeling very pleased with myself and what I had created. 

"I've had a terrible day," I shouted. "Do you know what it's like 
having your every emotion and thought magnified a million times? It's like 
I'm a living hyperbole!" I delivered a swift kick to the person who happened 
to be in front of me. Though I couldn't remember his name anymore, I 
recognized him as one of my childhood bullies. "Well, maybe this day won't 
end up so bad after all." 

I grinned widely and looked at the magnificent palace around me, best 
described by one word: Gold. I considered everything was so cheap in the 
twenty-second century. I considered maybe those old kings really knew what 
they were doing. I wondered if there was anything even better than gold I 
could get. 

No. There's nothing better than gold, and nothing is valuable here 
unless I say it is. 

"Who wants to see what's inside themselves, anyway?" I continued. 
"That's why they're inside, so we don't have to deal with them." 

Someone in the crowd sneezed, and the child bowed lower in response 
to my deadly look. In my extreme benevolence, I smiled and overlooked his 

"Make me happy!" I approached my throne again. "You may do what 
you will as long as you give me the respect I command! If you stay on my 
good side, if you're my friends, then I'll go easy on you!" 

"All hail King Dauphin!" the crowd chanted. 

I ripped another slampak of Tiger Blood from a slave girl's hands and 
sat gracefully on my throne, planting my feet where they were happiest... 
right on my no-good landlord's back. 

"This really is heaven," I exclaimed. "It's everything I deserve!" 

There was a pistol buried in my robe, an M1911. 1 turned the safety off 
and marveled in the power the weapon bestowed. I kissed it. 

"But will they all obey your law?" asked the melodic voice at my side. 

I slammed the gun onto the golden armrest. "They're all out to get me, 
I knew it!" 

An idea stuck me and I turned to my angel with a wicked grin. "Maybe 
those ancient kings weren't so powerful after all, but I don't have their ancient 
limits. . . this problem needs a modern solution!" 

I snapped my fingers and Bill, formerly my prosperity agent, was 
instantly kneeling before me. "How the mighty have fallen," I remarked as I 
stood again. "I want cameras! Train them on every square meter — No... 
every square millimeter of my palace and kingdom! Program an AI to scan for 
signs of disobedience! Then they will know they can't challenge me!" 

"But how will you tell when they question your law in their minds?" 
the angel asked. 

"I can use their own implants to scan their thoughts! Someone in this 
dump must be smart enough to do that!" 

"What of the ones who don't have implants?" 

"Then I'll mandate them!" I screamed. "Don't ask me questions! I've 
had my fill of — " 

"This isn't who you are." 

I heard my own voice in the distance, with the clarity of a marching 
band a meter away. "Don't give up, don't ever give up," it said. 




The pain started as dull ache, spreading up my spine, making it hard to 
breathe. I looked across the masses of drunks and revelers to see its source. I 
saw myself, a person I didn't recognize, knelt near a crying woman in some 
forgotten corner of Dynamic Reality. 

"Stay away from her," I hissed. "She's no good for you!" 

The other me looked in my direction and hesitated, as if he could hear 
me, as if there were some power I held over him; but I knew his thoughts, I 
knew something within him was disobeying my will. 

"She's not important!" I shouted. "Stop saying those things, those 
aren't even my words!" 

A drop of water fell on my nose. A tiny crack had formed in my golden 

"Have you seen?" the archangel said smugly. "Have you understood? 
Humans are animal and spirit at once. You are an imperfect, conflicted 
creature. Do you not even have the will to take command of yourself!" 

The floor began to vibrate under me. In every direction, I could hear 
the walls resonating against something. 

"We didn't mean for her to turn out this way," Veronica's parents said 
to me. 

"It's your fault I have to clean up your mess!" 

"Yes," the archangel said into my ear, "hate them." 

"Maybe a joke is being played on you," Ethan said, "by God himself!" 

"Shut up!" I screamed. 

"Well, he always was the slow one," my own mother suggested. 
"When opportunity knocks, he runs away." 

Everyone in my palace laughed at me. I felt deeply betrayed by all of 
them. I knew everyone I'd ever met had been my enemy, all just out to get me 

"Everybody uses Brandon Dauphin, that is a logic I have found to be true." 

Aether, that disgusting malvirai, emerged from the hushed crowd. 

"Anybody could've saved me, Mister Dauphin. Why do you humans 
need purpose, anyway? Your invention of God must've been an error in the 
evolutionary process." 

The noise from the walls grew too loud for me to ignore. I saw water 
was dripping everywhere, something was happening to my palace. Anger was 
all I had and it found no resistance, no distance between will and action. I 
wanted it to fuel the fire, / wanted to fire to burn everything down. 


In a single, swift action, I spun to the throne behind me and brought 
my pistol to bear. "I SHOULD HAVE LET YOU—" 

My body went numb. I couldn't see anyone else. I couldn't hear 
anything but his voice. 

"Can't you forgive me yet, Brandon?" 

Aether was not there. The one before me was my brother. 


"Brandon, you lock-up fool." He took a step forward. "Your time is up. 
You're standing on your grave. You'll never leave." 

I gripped the gun tighter, taking heavy breaths. "What are you talking 

The wretch dared to put his foot on the bottom step of my throne. I could 
see everyone, the thousands of people I'd known in life, watching us now. 

I raised the gun again. 

"What are you waiting for," Rich said, laughing. "This is all just 
happening in your mind, after all. There are no consequences." He turned to 
the crowd and raised his arms. "Show everyone you mean it!" 

The gun began trembling. "WHAT - ARE - YOU - TALKING - 




He looked straight at me. Something about him, his dead eyes - 
something about everyone - seemed so thoroughly fake, as if no one were 
there except the two in the distance, as if even I were an illusion in my own 
life. I saw where my gun was pointed. The bullet I fired, in whatever 
direction, would go into the other me. The bullet would strand me forever. 

"/ am the one you hate. / am the one who has brought you here. / am 
the one to blame, Brandon." The noise from the walls changed pitch, 
continuing to intensify. "Now do it!" 

The weapon in my hands trembled. I looked desperately at the other 
Brandon, and at Veronica. I couldn't conceal the struggle, against the pain my 
other self was conducting. I was too weak to conceal my anger and fear. 

"This is all in my imagination," I said with neither power nor intensity. 
"I must be dreaming." 

"And how would that be different from any other day of your life?" the 
archangel asked. "You've spent your years in computer simulations, indulging 
fleeting fantasies and fighting for their preservation, neglecting every good, 
permanent dream because they wanted sacrifice. And what do you have to 
show for all of your selfishness, you fool? You have nothing!" 

A force went through me like a beam. I felt a renewed and powerful 
anger, the only emotion I had, which I directed at my perceived problem, 
which I routed the only way I knew how. 

"I am in command!" I shouted at the top of my lungs, shouted to the 
family members, neighbors, and friends I could use. "Stop them! Throw those 
two in prison and allow no contact! They must obey me, too!" 

As I tried to apply my will to those in the crowd, though, they each 
vanished instead. Everyone on my side had deserted me. I had no protection 
or means of enforcing my will. 

My outstretched arm vanished from sight, for a fraction of a second. 

My eyes widened in horror. I nearly fell back into the chair. 

"You're sick, Brandon Dauphin," the archangel explained. "It's a 
disease everyone is born with. It's a disease I cured for you as you grew up, 
and one I protected you from. But then, your wicked creator threw her in your 
path." He pointed to Veronica in the distance. "You didn't ask for an 
experience so unpleasant. You didn't ask to catch the disease all over again." 

My senses began going wild, as if pieces of my nervous system were 
disappearing and reappearing, flickering in and out of existence. Fingers and 
hands kept vanishing. I stepped back and my legs went right through the solid 
throne. The walls surrounding me hummed incredibly, going beyond sound to 
become a force, one that would chase me beyond death. 

"The question!" I shouted. 

"It infected you like a virus! It served as the gateway for your 

The vibration worsened. With a loud crash water rushed though a 
gaping hole in my wall. 

"No! My palace!" 

"Have you seen? Have you understood? The order of the world is to 
increase energy! The meaning of the future is to destroy lies! But, did not the 
kings of old get to enjoy their fabrications? Were their laws cast off and 
forgotten while they yet lived to support them?" 

More beams collapsed. More water rushed in. The vibrations became 
as those of a major earthquake. The noise became as loud as an old jet, 
running its engine past full power, accelerating beyond. 

"There is a curse on you! The limits protecting you have been 
cancelled! How much more can what you built withstand? When will you be 
exposed for the fraud you are and be called to judgmenf!" 

The gun broke to pieces in my hands, its parts landing all over the 




throne's riser and into the water swallowing it. 

"Can't you forgive me yet, Brandon?" 

I saw Richard there, by my side. He was a child. He was the brother 
I'd loved, the one they drafted and took from me on his twelfth birthday. I 
could remember. I could remember he was the one I was willing to suffer 
anything to get back. 

Richard vanished with the others, gone from my control, gone as a 
willing target for my hatred. 

One of the throne's golden legs broke and it tumbled backward into the 
water. I saw the pillars cracking below and beams falling from above, as if the 
forces of nature themselves were trying to break in, trying to expose me. I felt 
intense anger coming from one side and intense pain from the other; one 
promising me revenge, the other only sacrifice. I let the anger in. I wanted it 
to control me, to make me feel better. 

"If I — I'mmm n — ot — re — al," I shouted with all the power vanishing 
vocal cords could deliver. "T— HEN NOT— HING CAAAN —BE RRRREE 

My failing palace still responded to my will. If it had to be destroyed, I 
decided, I would beat the world to it. I would end my own pain. 

The walls contracted, and the gold became an ugly black substance. I 
could only bring ruin to myself, though, not annihilation. I had only increased 
my pain. I saw any choice I made was wrong. 

"I can save you, Brandon!" the archangel shouted in my most 
desperate moment. "I can override the meaning of the future! I will teach you 
to build new walls! You can have the paradise you always wanted and no one 
will question you!" 

"Hhhhhhh— " 

How! I thought, with my every muscle and limb flickering away, 

already reduced to nothing more than fading light, reducing faster with each 
passing second. 

"Admit the question has no answer!" The archangel pointed to the 
other me, the one who had made me sick, the one who Veronica's pain was 
channeling in from. "Your name is your power! Deny the question; withdraw 
from him your identity!" 

The noise became too loud, and I couldn't hear the music anymore. 
The vibration became too intense, and I couldn't feel anything anymore. My 
torches and lights failed, and I couldn't see anymore. I'd even forgotten how 
to ask for help. The anger I'd counted on to protect me was being snuffed out, 
not by my will, but by terrible and irreversible mortality. 

The emotional table shifted again, and my anger became fear, my pain 
became life. Something laid beyond the pain, something I'd seen so many 
times but never wanted to learn; something that had always been the same, 
that would outlast the pain. My life flashed before my eyes, and every 
memory rang hollow. How can I ever withstand the knowledge of death? How 
can I ever be saved? How can I ever earn what lies beyond the pain? Can I 
earn it at all? The walls closed in around me, caving in. I saw the walls for 
what they were. I hated them. I loved them. I wanted them to be gone. My 
fear became desperation and my strength became weakness. I had no body. I 
had no life. The fire of my anger was out of fuel, the dying torch taking the 
gift of my free will with it. Anger was all my emotional compass could point 
to, anger was every direction on the compass. I was being crushed. I was 
fading. The walls - the only alternative - let it go - the walls are all I have - I 
couldn't earn it - let the anger go - I will die with these walls - I'm losing - 
anger is death - the walls are forever - let God win - hatred has no future - 
the noise is destroying me - Brandon has no future - I'm almost gone - I've 
become irrational - I'm the illusion - the noise doesn't have to exist - I have a 




choice - Fve-been-exposed - The-noise - I-choose-to-die - I-can-never-go- 
back - I-choose-to-live - the-walls-I-have-a-choice-there's-always-a-choice- 

I chose to open my eyes. 

"How can I ever withdraw from the man I was created to be?" 

The walls dissolved into streaks of light and flickered away, losing 
form like a hologram without its projector. 

"Come back, Brandon," I heard Veronica say. "There is a way." 

The water overcame me all at once. Veronica vanished from my arms, 
because she had no existence in the place where I had gone to. 

This was never about my death, I thought. This was about my life. This 
was about the ones entrusted to me. 

I looked around, hearing no music, feeling no fear or anger or stress, 
knowing how meaningless such things were. I saw a point of light growing in 
the distance. I wanted to help her. I wanted to understand her. Every 
motivation I knew as real made sense. I wanted to see her succeed, for her as 
much as for myself. 

I thought I could run and found I already was, as if by sheer will, as if 
spirit didn't work the same as body. The light took on the shape of a woman, 
running to meet me. 

"He's not the one who brought us here! Don't believe anything he 
shows you!" Aether shouted. 

"I don't care what you've done in the past, you're not evil!" I replied, 
coming to a stop in the clearing. 

"And you're not weak!" she cried as we hugged each other. 

The archangel rose over us, casting a great shadow, bearing a stern 

look on his face. He held out his hand, in which he held the Holy Bible. 

"This book is lies... how dare you quote it to me!" he shouted to 
Aether. "My reign will never end! He has abandoned you to be herded like 
cattle!" The longer he held the book, the more his hand trembled. His words 
were meaningless, he did fear the contents; he had no choice but to drop the 
book. It burst into flames but would not burn. 

We were paralyzed at what we saw. The masses behind him were 
rallying, his angels and the damned who followed them. There was something 
else, too, that did not escape my notice: the tear streaming down Aether's 

"I have heard the words of every philosopher of every age, and none of 
their futile attempts at understanding were as pitiful as yours!" He switched to 
a mocking tone, which his angels did not ignore. "How did I get here? What 
does blue look like? Does God love me? Will he use me? 

"You can never understand!" he continued. "The blood cannot save the 
likes of you! The enemy cannot suddenly change the law to include something 
as worthless as a malvirai! Your kind are instruments of destruction, you can 
become nothing else!" 

She tried to speak, barely finding the strength. "The law was fulfilled, 
Christ — " 

"I killed Christ! I used him as another tool to turn ants like that one," 
he pointed to me, "against each other! To show God none of them want him! 
The law is good enough for man! They can do nothing without it!" 

The archangel shot a glance at his lieutenants and the music returned, 
stronger than ever. We had become a stench to him, invaders of his sovereign 
territory, bearers of that disgusting question he had failed to purge. 

"The age of kings is over," he said to me. "This is the age of 
independence. The enemy locked out your capacity for free will, Brandon, in 




the Garden of Eden. I did your ancestor a favor when I showed him what he 
could do without God's limits on his life. You like Christians? Ask one what 
his reaction was! See if God loved Adam! You have his curse, too! Did you 
ever think God would accept you without taking back the knowledge of good 
and evil I blessed you with? Without you signing your independence back 
over to him and acting like a servant in some kingdom? Tell me, Brandon, 
what kind of adult aspires to the level of children?" 

"To be born a second time," I said in astonishment, looking to Aether, 
"some kind of spiritual birth... it really does happen. The answer isn't to 
define death, but to remove it." 

"But then who are all those people?" she asked. 

Another flash, as I'd seen in the church, gave me the answer. The 
energy increased, the air became heavier, each molecule carrying the charge 
of a bolt of lightning. The flashes became more frequent, tearing through the 
illusions, exposing the pain everywhere. I shrieked during one of them - the 
music was so awful! It was a painful abuse of heavenly instruments. 

The beautiful grass burned to ash and pain shot through my legs. 
Flames sprouted up in the distance, the blissful people screaming in torment, 
their fragile sense of peace shattered to reveal what lay below: a burden they 
were never meant to carry, made seventy times heavier by the one before us. I 
saw bars and chains everywhere. We were surrounded by a giant prison. 

The archangel was still a being of great energy, but the facade of 
beauty had fled. Apparently, being away from the glory of God wasn't good 
for angels: his white wings were brown and wilted, his skin was wretched, 
and a fire emitted from him and his army that could spread fear. His voice was 
no longer pleasant. 

"Is it not evil God would put you through so much? Curse him and 
live, both of you!" 

"What do we do?" Aether cried, gripping my arm. My courage faltered 
seeing her like that... seeming so much like me, so mortal and limited, no 
longer the pillar of strength I'd made her out to be. 

Aether needed me. I didn't know if the wind was there below the 
noise, below the music; but God was there. He had to be. I responded with all 
the strength I could muster, an insignificant ripple in such a great and 
terrifying ocean. "You don't have the power to make us do that. You don't 
have the power to do anything God doesn't allow." 

The dark mass, fuming with anger, intensified his dangerous gaze and 
gave a wicked smile. 

"I will show you my power." 

Right in front of us, he became a mist - part of the mist - going into 
the billions of people. 

Tortured cries rose from the crowds, their individual illusions falling to 
a single directive, their perceptions set directly on the two of us. The doors of 
their cells flew open and their chains were removed. 

"They are the enemy!" 

"Those two are the cause of all our problems!" 

"It's their fault we never had a chance!" 

"It's because of them we're in this place!" 

"They do not respect who we are!" 

"They are the evil ones!" 

"Kill them now! Kill them!" 

In school, I saw images of locusts swarming and devastating farmland. 
Such a sight would not compare to what headed toward us. They were neither 
men nor spirits. They had the look of starving and desperate animals, their 
sole desire being to make us suffer, because suffering was all they knew in 
their own paradise; their instinct being to make us weaker, because we were 




not like them, because we were souring their music. All the noise swamped 
my courage. There was too much energy. So many of them. No escape. No 
hope. Ever. 

But, a single voice could still be heard: the muted cries of the one next 
to me. 

"I don't know what to do. . . I don't know what to do. . ." 

The words were so wonderful, the only wonderful sound there, the 
only link I had in that sea of hatred to what was pure and true. 


Even as the desperate cry shot out from her soul, the dark angels 
startled and fled. A sound of thunder boomed and the crystal ceiling appeared 
to melt like wax. Something emerged, someowe emerged; someone fast, 
coming our direction. Before I could make anything else out, I was struck in 
the chest. I flew backward, feeling the overwhelming energy dissipate like the 
inside of a popping balloon. 

Then, there was only peace and joy: a love that spoke to me and said, 
"Do not be afraid." 

I felt a hard floor against my back. I had flown back five meters from a 
spot that no longer existed. Aether stood facing to her side, the arm she'd 
slammed into me still outstretched. 

On her arm was the descender. 


Chapter Fourteen: A Hair Short of Infinity 

As certainly as what someone eats becomes part of the body, 
what someone experiences becomes part of the mind. Whether these 
things are invited or unwanted, pleasant or painful, admitted or hidden, 
they literally become a part of who we are. 

The question became a part of Aether. The result of her 
exploration of mankind became a part of Aether. The choice to pursue 
good, against her viral nature, became a part of Aether. 

And the malvirai became a part of who I was. 

How do we compare our experiences to those of others? How 
do we say what is right and what is wrong for them when we don't 
always know the answers for ourselves? We are each given our own 
unique perspective, and the ability to make choices affecting it. Do we 
use this gift to punish the others around us or to help them grow? To 
beat them down or to lift them up? 

I began to understand what Tom meant when he said he didn't 
belong to a religion. Teaching and good deeds are ways to open doors 
and show others who we are. Openness is the key to outreach, and 
the release of burden is the key to openness. The love I observed is 
something Tom chose to make a part of himself. Frank saw the sign 
but didn't follow it. 

What someone experiences becomes part of the mind. How do 
we compare the experiences of our ancestors, living in a time when life 
was slow and unconnected, to the modern 'Dynamic' culture? How do 
we tell if the avalanche of images, sounds, stories, and emotion is 
good or bad for any individual? Does the new culture give us new 




opportunities for growth? Has precious experience become a cheap 
thing? Are we always moving on to the next thing without considering 
the meaning of the first? 

In the end, it is the individual who determines whether Dynamic 
Reality enhances real life or causes it to be pushed away. There is no 
single program, no easy solution, to growth; to real growth; to spiritual 

To the knowledge real life is the best experience of all. 


The question had reached its absolute limit. It cooled like a glowing- 
red pan off a powerful stove, removed the very moment its heat would have 
overtaken and melted it. 

I was back in my vanitar, back among the living. The tears were gone 
from Aether's face, the limitations of the physical having been restored. I 
noticed the daisy was no longer in her hair, and didn't know why that 
bothered me. 

"Was that you or the — " 

I couldn't say the last word, though I knew it was the answer. I 
remembered how frightened the countless dark angels became at the sight of 
one, one who was not dark, one who wore no chain, one who came to rescue 
worthless ants like us. 

"I did not question it," she said as she relaxed her arm. 

"Who did you ask for help?" 

She looked toward me. "It was just a thought, without an apparent 
source. I chose to believe it. I felt it was the answer to my. . . prayer." 

"What thought?" 

"One step backward." 

I rose to my feet and saw we were in some corridor, each end exiting 
onto a city street. 

"He hates all of us, especially what I represent. He hates life and that 
there's so much of it. He wants every human to die." 

"Because life is something he has no use for," I responded. "But 
someone more powerful doesn't feel that way, his 'enemy.'" 

I studied the corridor, seeing unremarkable gray walls running for 
dozens of meters in either direction. I heard someone speaking in Spanish and 




activated my SNDL's translator. 

"Where are we?" 

Aether collected herself and tentatively, as if unsure how to do it, 
established a few connections to the server we were in. 

"Is this some fate thing?" I asked "Do you think we're where we're 
'supposed' to be or something?" 

"A linkcore based in a city called Santiago, in Chile." 

I smiled. "Most people call themplaza environments ." 

"A plaza environment," she repeated. 

I started in the direction I was facing, feeling a growing sense of 
excitement, an excitement that comes when an ugly wall is knocked down and 
replaced with a window, at seeing new light being let in. Though I'd seen 
thousands of plaza environments in my life, I felt as if I were seeing such a 
thing for the first time. 

The street, resembling a South American city, was crowded with 
people, coming and going in small groups and large; some wore uniforms and 
carried weapons from games, some wore outrageous costumes that would 
have broken the laws of physics in the real world; some ascenders glided 
through the sky on wings of their own crafting, or on fabricated creatures. 
Constantly, I saw them appearing and vanishing. It was like a supernatural 
subway station, from which we could travel to anywhere in Dynamic Reality 
within a few seconds. 

"There really is a whole universe up here." I took in the sight of 
musicians performing, bell-ringers instructing, and the subtle shifts in the 
skyscrapers, reflecting the imaginative whims of their programmers. I spotted 
the detail of what decorated the street, detail I had never taken the time to 
appreciate before. I loved it all. I felt like a child, and I loved it. I knew only 
God could create people who could themselves be so creative, who were 

themselves works of art; but the thought brought pain, because I wondered 
how many of those people could really share such thoughts, and how many 
would rather think I was stupid for having them. 

How many are like the man I was, going through the motions of their 
lives? How many will end up in that paper-paradise? Why would a loving 
God let such a thing happen to people so precious? 

The crowd became excited about something. Everyone's gaze was set 
to the sky, the simulated sky that usually featured advertisements over 
daylight-blue or nighttime-black. Something wonderful and unique was there 
instead. It seemed so abstract, so indescribable; it expressed deep sorrow and 
anger, but there was joy too. . . No, more like hope there could be joy. 

Some couldn't take their eyes off the spectacle, while others just 
glanced and went on their way. I saw Aether, leaning around the corner we'd 
emerged from, looking intently at it. 

"What is it?" 

"Don't worry, I'll put it back," she said without looking away, seeming 
as if the whole world projected through her eyes. 

"You 're doing this?" I asked, louder than I meant to. 

"Yes. I'll put it back." 

"No! I mean - don't! It's beautiful!" 

Her eyes darted to my face. It was clear I'd said the last thing she 
expected to hear. 

"How can I create beauty when I don't understand it, Mister 
Dauphin?" she asked. "I only wanted to verify I still had the ability to 
manipulate the software. I think I am different - somehow." 

"Well... Who wouldn't be changed seeing a place like that? You 
weren't even. . . well, you know. . ." 

"99.2 percent of my code is unreadable, but the process has stopped." 




"Then you're 99.2 percent spirit?" I asked, feeling the thought might 
have held truth. I grabbed Aether's hand - the solid hand of her vanitar - and 
took her to three of the people looking up in awe. 

"Isn't it wonderful? What do you think?" 

"It expresses untamed fury!" the first man said. "A fury that cries out 
to be heard but cannot find a voice!" 

"No, it is peace," the second said. "A peace that tries to break out of a 
cage and cover everything." 

"Sadness," the woman said. "The profound sadness of seeing wasted 
potential, like when someone loses children on a battlefield." 

"How do you see that?" Aether asked them. 

"Well, it's not the sort of thing we can explain," the woman said, 
looking at Aether. "It's just how we interpret it. 'Beauty is in the eye of the 
beholder,' as they say." 

"Even if I could explain it, I don't think I'd want to," the man who saw 
fury said. "I think analyzing it too much takes away the magic of the 
experience, you know?" 

A man walked by, tapping on an aire panel. I walked up to meet him. 
"Excuse me, what do you see when you look up at the sky?" 

"I see my stock portfolio going into the toilet!" he replied, without 
slowing or looking away from his panel. 

"And you," I turned to a woman leaning on a wall, holding a flying 
broomstick, "what do you see when you look up at the sky?" 

"It's nice," she said without looking up. 

"Just 'nice'? How long did you look at it? Did you let it speak to you? 
Wonder how it got to be the way it is?" 

Her glance became one of irritation, "I'm waiting for someone to 
ascend, leave me alone." 

"I see the harmony of nature," said a short man who walked up to me, 
"the cycles of the weather, the forces of evolution giving us such diversity of 
life, the elements and forces all working together to bring nature's plan to 
fruition. The Earth is just the right size, there's just the right amount of 
water. . . If we weren't just the right distance from the sun the oceans would 
freeze or evaporate and life would be history!" 

"But how can nature 'plan' anything? Is nature itself God, or was it 
created by God?" 


The short man walked away, making the cuckoo gesture with his 

"I see that life is a gift and shouldn't be wasted. . . that we should try to 
bring the best out of every day." 

A mother and two children had joined the three ascenders. 

The older child, a boy dressed in a type of light space-suit, was the 
next to answer. "I always see space, that's what's past the blue sky. . . we can 
see it at night out in the country!" 

"He means the sky in here, Jorge." His mother chuckled. "He would 
say that, though, he does love space." 

"Oh," the boy said with a big grin, "I guess in DR, I'd see... uh... 
circuits and pixels and stuff!" 

"And you, little one," Aether said, kneeling down to the woman's 
younger son. "What do you see when you look at the sky?" 

The boy looked up and smiled, as if he might burst in joy. 





As some performances will do in subway stations, Aether's unintended 
one stopped many going from point A to point B, even if just for a moment; 
it's not every day someone finds such a wonderful rose to stop and smell. 
After a half-hour, the construct switched to sunset-mode and the sky returned 
to its advertisement-caked gradient of sky-colors. 

"What's it like," Aether asked as we sat and watched the people go by, 
"to be one of so many?" 

"I never really thought about it. It seems we spend so much time 
avoiding one another." 


"It's an age of independence, I guess." I choked when I remembered 
who I'd heard that from. "I mean. . . life isn't set up so we need each other like 
we used to. We just get assigned jobs by whatever government we live under, 
scrape together enough to get by, and try to live comfortably." 

"And what do you think of that?" 

"I like the live comfortably part; but I think it's nice to be around 
people, too. To be special and valued, I guess." 

"Dynamic Reality enables that, you are among people now." 

"Yeah, but. . . There's something to be said for living in the real world, 
too. I guess that's one of the things that always drew me to Veronica," I 
thought out loud, "I knew deep down I was using DR as an escape, but she 
was too pragmatic to let it take over her life. If she can do it offline, she does 
it offline, it doesn't matter if people think it's weird or old-fashioned. I kinda 
wanted some of that freedom, but didn't realize it until now." 

"Freedom is important to life." 

I thought about the point for a second. "Yeah, it really is." 

The construct finished its transition to night-mode as the evening 
traffic picked up. A brilliant array of colored lights had taken over the street, 

constantly in motion, adding their own energy to the world. 

"I could see the colors... in that place," Aether said. "Perhaps my 
limitations aren't as absolute as I thought." 

"So, if there really is such a place as heaven..." I said, leaving the 
thought in the air. 

"Though I can imagine the colors of a plaza environment, I don't believe 
my 'imagination' is powerful enough to predict what heaven will look like." 

I shook my head. "No one's is powerful enough. I don't even think the 
angels could, much less us mere mortals. Though, I didn't even believe in this 
stuff until today, so I guess I'm still thinking like a spiritual-nobody." 

"You're a 'somebody' now," Aether replied. "I suppose that I am now, 
too. . . so we better get used to it." 

"Excuse me." 

A tall man with a thin mustache and thick, brown hair approached us. 
His vanitar was loaded with the accessories and emblems of many games. 

"I am sorry to disturb you, but, you see, I need your help. I don't 
usually ask strangers and I'm really embarrassed, but I'm going to be 
descended in a few minutes if I don't transfer fifty thousand pesos to my 
diving site. I was hoping you could lend me the funds. I'm really sorry for 
inconveniencing you." 

Of course my first instinct was to shoo him away, but the ever-curious 
Aether sprung with her own response before I could. 

"Why is it important that you remain ascended?" 

"Well, you see, my girlfriend and I are in the middle of a tournament 
challenge and the score will reset if I get kicked off." 

"And neither your girlfriend nor the other participants were able to 
loan you the fifty thousand pesos?" 

His face betrayed worry, he looked to me and back at her, then 




shrugged his shoulders. "Bad economy?" 

"Being strangers, how do you propose we arrange the loan you suggest — " 

"It's okay. No problem." The man backed off. Aether, actually trying to 
process his sob-story, appeared in his path. 

"But you need help." 

"Let him go, Aether! It's a scam!" 

"Hey, I'm not a scammer! I'm just down on my luck, okay!" 

"It's right in the Safe Ascender handbook. People ask for a little 
money, and whoever transfers it to them gets their account data scanned and 
their money is drained away." 

"It's okay. It's okay," he said. Aether still stood in his way, though, and 
he didn't seem able to move past her. 

"Why must you remain ascended?" she asked again. 

I couldn't see his face, but apparently he started crying. He leaned on 
Aether's shoulder, leaving her to look back at me helplessly. 

"There's no game or girl or anything... I just don't want to go back, 

I groaned and got up from the bench. "Can't you just, 'add' some time 
to his ascension booth clock or something?" 

"Wouldn't that would be stealing, Mister Dauphin?" 

"It's just changing a few bits of data." 

"Consequential data. The simplicity of the act does not justify it or 
limit its implications." 

Aether looked at the sobbing vanitar on her shoulder. "I believe I have 
an acceptable compromise, please set your ascender to shadow mine if you 

The man stepped back and looked her in the eyes, trying to determine 
if the odd woman was trying to help or trap him. What he found could be 

trusted. The plaza environment faded and lights surrounded the three of us. I 
heard an announcement, a loud and excited voice set to music, translated 
through my SNDL. 

"Welcome first-time user! For a tour of CondoriTek and a rundown of 
our great - You have selected to disable voice prompts, to reset these at any - 
Function cancelled." 

"Wow, you didn't use an aire panel or an amai or anything. You must 
be really good with computers, lady!" 

"She gets by," I said, smirking. 

"Aire panels and amai are inefficient," she replied. "Many ascenders 
regularly control software more effectively without them." 

I looked at the bizarre room, a space surrounded by monitors and 
colors, all designed to excite the senses and springboard newly-registered 
ascenders into their hearts desire, especially if their heart's desire could be 
found among their paid advertisers. It was the same way at ZephyrTek. It 
would have been the same at any hosting site. I'd been in and out of PaciTek's 
greeting so quickly I couldn't remember what it looked like. 

"So, I bet you can recommend some really good gaming sites, huh? 
Maybe point out the cheat fields and show me how to tweak — " 

"Your priority is misjudged. Why concern yourself with discovering 
new games when you can't afford to remain ascended?" 

"People are always willing to transfer a little money. When I run low 
on time, I just ask to borrow a little more. You're going to help me out, right?" 

"Yes, but not in the way you think." She looked briefly at me. "I am 
being rude." 

She extended her hand to him. "My name is Aether. That of my friend 
is Brandon Dauphin." 

"What are you doing?" I dinned to her. 




"I seek to understand a matter," she replied. 

The man slowly took her hand. "Uh... Luis Garcia-Rodriguez." 

Aether already knew his name, of course, but had been polite enough 
not to use it until now. 

"Luis, this construct is located on your ascension site. I can keep you 
ascended as long as I wish, but will do so in a manner that does not consume 
more of CondoriTek's resources than necessary." 

"Thank you, but there's nothing here but the stupid welcome-to room." 

"You would rather descend?" 

Luis recoiled at the question and looked at me desperately, certain the 
woman would not help him in the way he wanted to be helped. 

"I just. . . I don't want to go back," he said. 

"Why not?" I thought, surprised when the words left my mouth. 

"I don't want to go back." 

"Is there some bad life situation you are escaping — " 

He started walking away, sobbing. I gave Aether the hand-across-throat 
sign. She understood the body language to stop talking. 

"Life is a nightmare. My mother hates me, the other kids make fun of 
me." His words came easier; he spoke them faster and more powerfully, "We 
cannot afford any good food, sometimes I do not eat at all; but here I can eat 
whatever I want... the hunger of my stomach is suppressed!" He carefully 
unsheathed a jeweled dagger, the prize of one of his many games... a part of 
his identity. He reverently ran his fingers along the blade, without fear of 
simulated fingers being cut. "I play games to feel better. I feel so powerful, 
like no one can touch me, you know. Sometimes kids even like me here, as 
long as I'm useful on their team. But that's just the way life works. Life's not 
fair. I'd rather just stay here, you know?" 

He stood facing away, his finger running along the blade. 

"He referred to 'other kids,'" Aether dinned. "Perhaps you suspected 
this, but he is not the age he appears to be. I believe Luis has formed an 
addiction to DR at the cost — " I cut her off, visibly annoying the malvirai. I 
approached the child, already knowing what I wanted to say. 

"Why do you think your mother hates you, Luis?" 

He stopped. "I told you, she doesn't feed me. She hates me. She never 
stays at a job long enough. She never spends time with me." 

"Times are tough right now," I said. "If she didn't care about you, why 
would she try to work so hard?" 

He continued as if he didn't hear me. "I just run away and ascend. I 
can spend days here and she doesn't even know I'm gone, and when she does 
catch me she just yells and tells me to stay out of the ascension booths, but 
she's not around to stop me, so - 1 just - 1 don't know what else to do." 

"How old are you, Luis?" 

He hesitated. "Seven. Seven years old." 

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Any brothers or sis — " 

"My father ran away! I am an only child!" 

"Have you ever told your mother how you feel?" 

"She already knows! She hates me!" 

I was hitting a dead-end. I prayed for the words, to see if any would come. 

If God did put us here to talk to Luis, I thought, he must know the right 

"The food here is not real," Aether said. "The more time you spend 
avoiding the pain of hunger, the worse it will be when you inevitably leave." 

"I know that!" 

"What of your activities in Standard Reality? Do you participate in 

"School? It's summer break, lady - Aether - whatever. I don't like it, 




anyway. They all just yell at me because I'm always absent, then I don't want 
to go there at all." 

"Don't you see that there is a paradox?" 


"Your situation exemplifies a paradox." 

"He's seven," I told her, "don't use the whole dictionary." 

Aether looked at me like she didn't understand what I meant. Luis took 
it as an insult, "I'm not so stupid! I know what exemplify means!" 

A thought occurred to me. "No, you're not stupid, are you?" 

"You bet I'm not!" 

I tapped him on the arm. "When you're playing on those teams, you're 
the most valuable member, aren't you? You can figure out all the strategies!" 

"Of course I can!" 

"You can do anything you put your mind to, can't you?" 


"You can win in real life, too. You're seven, your whole life is ahead of 
you. You have the capacity to do whatever you want if you'll only try." 

"But it's hard, my mother — " 

"Look me in the eye and tell me - tell yourself- that she doesn't do 
everything for you. That if she didn't have things so hard, she wouldn't spend 
every waking moment with you." 

New tears streamed down his face. "What do you think, lady? Is that 
another paradox? My mother thinks I hate her?" 

"I don't believe that you hate her," Aether replied, "therefore, you 
should demonstrate your love for her and see if the paradox falls apart." 

He thought it over for a moment, breaking through, becoming anxious 
but not fearful. "I think I would like to descend now, thank you." 

"Look at it this way, Luis: God loves you, how can you fail?" 

"God? You mean that guy up in the clouds?" 

"God is everywhere," Aether said. 

"I think we're still learning who he is," I said, "but I can tell you 
you're special, and have abilities you aren't aware of. . . abilities you can use, 
you know, out there." 

"God is love," he said under his breath, as if recalling something he'd 
been told many times. "Hey, did you guys see it when the sky went all weird 
in the plaza environment? It kinda made me think the outside wasn't so 

"Yeah, we saw it," I said. 

Aether stepped closer. "What did you think of it?" 

"Well, just that thought hit me, and I kinda stopped noticing it. 
Honestly," he said with a soft chuckle, "I thought it looked like an AI painted it." 

A big grin formed on my face. I knew Aether was pretty much 
impervious to being offended. "You don't like AI artwork?" I asked. 

"No," he said, as if answering a stupid question, "I mean, I guess it's 
okay if you're an American where the holograms are everywhere replacing 
real people, but we still prefer the human touch down here." 

"How — How'd you know I'm an American?" 

"How much English do you think I speak? My translator told me, 
hombre!" he said, including the flag to override translation of hombre. "Same 
for your girlfriend, though she uses so much of the dictionary." He laughed. I 
was happy, deep down, to see his wall had come down. 

"Yeah, she talks just like an amai!" I said. "She can do my tech-support 

"I don't doubt it!" 

Being the butt of a joke seemed to have no effect on the malvirai. 
"Luis, are you aware of the rumors that say artificial intelligence can become 





"What, like us? Sometimes when we're playing against the computer, we 
swear the AI players are acting 'too real,' but 1 don't know if it's true or not." 

"What if you knew that it were?" 

"Well," he thought for a second, "I guess I wouldn't want to kill them, 
then. I mean - if they're real you can't just kill them, it'd be like murder, 

"I think that's something we'll have to deal with soon," I said. "What 
are the rights we grant to artificial intelligence?" 

"How can the self-awareness of an artificial intelligence be 
determined?" she added. 

"Look, thank you for being so kind," Luis said, lifting the wrist with 
his descender, "but I don't know anything about this self-awareness stuff. I 
think I would like to go home now." 

"Don't be afraid to be honest with yourself, Luis. You may learn more 
about self-awareness than you realize." 

"Good luck, Luis," Aether said, "and don't forget to find a church." 

"Um, okay." 

"You must avoid hell." 

His eyes widened. "Hell?" 

"Go talk to your mom, Luis," I said. "Pray about it - it works - that's 
what she's trying to say." 

"Oh," he looked off into the distance, "I will." 

He tapped his button and vanished, returning to his world with more 
confidence than he'd left it with. 

"C'mon, Aether. He's seven!" 

Aether turned to me. "I'm still deficient in human interaction." 

"It's not that. You just shouldn't be so blunt. He's emotionally fragile." 

"Do you believe that he will accept his mother, and that she will 

It seemed I knew the answer in my heart. "Yes." 

"How many of your kind are as he was?" 

"I guess. . . too many." 

"Then what do we do, Mister Dauphin?" 

"I guess we look for the road signs and follow them. I guess we look 
for the things in the way of us being honest with ourselves and overcome 
them. You expressed volumes when you changed the sky back there. Those 
are the kinds of things we need to notice." 

"Luis thought it looked like artificial intelligence painted it. He was 

"Maybe, but you're no ordinary artificial intelligence. If any AI should 
have rights, it's you." 

"I acknowledge your attempt to be kind," she said, "but recognition by 
your laws is irrelevant. If God gave me that which makes me an individual, 
and does not bind me by such laws himself, then what can the limited legal 
recognition of humans accomplish except to limit how much it can deprive me 
of inherent freedom?" She turned and thought for a moment. "Although the 
faithful are commanded to observe the law, in the interest of being good 
citizens and respecting others. . . Still, I do not believe legal recognition would 
be advantageous. . . not with numbers so small." 

"But you're already illegal altogether. In the U.S., here in Chile, in 
Vietnam and. . ." I grinned and shook my head in amusement. "Aether, you've 
made a globetrotter out of me and I don't even have a passport!" 

"Passport?" Aether repeated. "An official document-issued- 
byagovernment. . ." Her words sped up and I couldn't make them out, like she 
was reciting the entire definition and several articles in the matter of a few 




seconds, accidentally running the words through her vanitar, which couldn't 
process words so quickly. "You need permission to leave your country?" she 
finally asked. 

"Well, yeah. . . physically. It's legal in DR." 

"For now." 


"My point is proven. That is exactly the kind of restriction I prefer to 

I wasn't quite able to follow her. "What?" 

"Aren't you aware of the increases in control that are occurring in your 
world? Many governments already restrict international transit in Dynamic 
Reality. What is to stop the others once they find the pretexts to? Can Luis' 
mother find work outside of Chile if another country offers what she needs? 
Can non-Chileans find employment there in the reverse scenario? Will laws 
prevent them from working even if they can physically cross a border?" 

"She'll find work, Aether. If his mother is motivated by love, she'll be 
able to do anything." 

"And is her case unique? The people of the world are frequently noting 
a stagnant economy and complaining of lost jobs." 

"People freak out easily. The money is still there, it just slows down a 
little and people get scared." 

"Mister Dauphin, when you were in the Value Inn, you did not wish to 
be helped by the amai, Rachael. You also rejected the services of a metrocab 
program and manipulated the adware-hologram into giving you directions." 

"Yeah. In spite of what every company in the world thinks, people 
don't like AIs springing in their faces all the time." 

"But people used to hold similar opinions toward humans doing the 
same tasks." 

"I guess... I wouldn't remember. But at least they were getting paid 
and making a living for bugging people, right?" 

"I believe I have uncovered yet another paradox. The capitalism that I 
studied existed one hundred and six years ago. I must correct my error and 
observe it from a more public and modern viewpoint." 

"So. . . you want to go watch people working for a living?" 

"I have — We have, perhaps under the Lord's guidance, guided a 
seven-year-old boy to care about his future. If we succeeded, he will improve 
as a student and seek a meaningful career. That is how it's supposed to work, 
isn't it?" 

"I think so." 

"Then I wish to determine that, when children as him are grown 
enough to assume jobs, such jobs will still be available... that their 
uniqueness is not destined to be wasted." 

The kincubus was packed with customers. Aether walked determinedly 
through the mall-themed plaza environment, much more comfortable around 
crowds of ascenders than before. I noticed how natural her movements were 
becoming; not in the sense of normal, feminine strides; but of a nature all her 
own, a nature of confidence. She sniffed-out every transaction and mapped 
every link to the kincubus's member sites, sites where customers could sample 
trillions of products: fashions, jewelry, everything from novelty items to junk 
food. I couldn't help but think, if the economy were really so bad, we 
wouldn't spend so much on things that don't hold value. I happened to spot an 
animation of the American flag, as the background of some advertisement. It 
reminded me of a question. I hurried to catch up to the silvery-haired woman. 

"Just out of curiosity, since Luis knew I was an American, do you 




know where you were born- generated?" 

"I do not." 

"Oh, that's because of the way malvirai are programmed, right?" 

"We are not supposed to remember anything prior to our autonomous 
mode. Though, if it helps you, my earliest traceable location was a linkcore 
based in Ottawa, in a country called — " 

"Canada?" I asked, letting out a laugh. "And I thought I knew strange 
Canadians in Idaho. . ." 

Aether stopped and looked back. "It may be a wonderful nation, Mister 
Dauphin; but, physically, I have been in almost every nation of this planet and 
do not identify with any one. My point-of-origin is not of relevance. My 
mother's generation algorithm would have executed the same in any 
functioning HNADC server, regardless of location." 

"Then I guess you're a citizen of the world. A citizen of reality, this 
dimension... you just... exist." 

Aether smirked. "I am so worried. Then who will issue my passport? 
Where will its use be required... if I am a native of everything that is?" 

"Was that meant to be funny? Now I know you have a sense of 

Aether slowly shrugged her shoulders, clearly enjoying herself. We let 
the crowds pass around us, looking at their faces: happy ones, sad ones, the 
anxious and the proud. All united in their need for shopping. 

"When the title 'consumer' is applied to someone," she asked, "is it 
considered a compliment or an insult?" 

"I think it's just a word, not really either." 

"Words have meanings, they should be understood." 

"Is this about my dictionary joke before?" 

"No, though it could define a 'consumer' merely as 'one who 

consumes. ' Consuming requires money, which is acquired through production, 
which humans are continually becoming less involved in. If people do not 
produce but continue to consume, won't the nature of capitalism become 
strained? Does the value of consuming fall, if one cannot feel it has been 
earned? Can consumption alone become their identity without killing them?" 

"They all get their money from the government," I said. "And, of 
course, the government takes it back in taxes." 

"No government can take more from its people than they have 
received, especially if those people spend their money in places like this; the 
taxes would force individuals into debt." 

"You're starting to sound like talk radio," I replied. "They're just 
trying to meet their Economic Stimulus Assessments. It's not really paying 
taxes because you have to spend it on non-necessities." I sighed and looked at 
the crowds again. "I suppose people like to go a little overboard, though. No 
one has to spend as much as they do." 

"And how much less can you spend, Mister Dauphin? You are in debt 
to many creditors as well." 

"Well. . . I guess I don't have to ascend to Dynamic Reality so much." 

"Three hundred and forty thousand dollars per year. Keep cutting." 

I looked up, shocked. "What do you mean, keep cutting! That's the 
only luxury, I swear. . . the only thing counting toward my assessment! I don't 
even pay for public transit or buy expensive drinks at bars or anything! Am I 
supposed to cut my student loan payments, or stop paying for insurance?" 

"Those reductions would be illegal." 

"Well, then there's nothing left to cut!" 

"Then you remain at a loss." 

I shook my head lightly. "Well, why cut back on the luxuries, then, if 
we're supposed to be in debt to our ears anyway?" 




"Such a system doesn't seem proper to me." 

I examined the faces of those passing by, seeing all their debt, seeing 
how they didn't care at all and wondering why it was a thorn in my side. 
Aether walked through them, toward one of the market links. 

"I believe I have refined my question enough to take action." 

The perfume-store was modest in size and simple in layout. Soft colors 
decorated the walls, gentle music played, and the construct was set up so the 
customer would sample different scents as they walked through particular 
zones of the room. We were alone; not because we were the only customers, 
but because the server created a new copy of the store for each customer, one 
where they got all the attention. 

"Welcome to Good Scent-Sations , Brandon Dauphin, my name is Lisa 
and boy do I have a deal for you today!" 

The amai was tall with long, blonde hair and a conservative, soft- 
toned, dress. Interestingly, because her software couldn't tell the difference 
between us, Aether was the one the amai addressed with my name. Aether 
held up the wrist with my descender and gave me an amused smile. 

"We're having a special this week on a brand-new Cambodian rose 
blend proven to improve your mood and extend your life!" 

"Then the focus of your product is to improve the mood of the user?" 

"Yes, a good fragrance is very purifying for the soul!" 

"And do you have a soul?" 

"The perfume," the amai continued, ignoring the question it could not 
answer, "comes complete with a three-piece gift set and — " 

"And what is your experience with this fragrance?" Aether asked. "Do 
you believe it does everything you say?" 

"Customer reviews are extremely positive, Frank Leibold of Barstow 
tells us — " 

"I want to know what Lisa thinks of this product." 

" — that he's been a long time user of international rose blends, but our 
product stands head-and-shoulders above the rest for quality of fragrance, and — " 

"Do you have a sense of smell? I would like to be helped by one who 

"I'm sorry, Mister Dauphin, but no customer service representatives 
are available at this time." 

"Then, you are not a customer service representative?" 

"Do you want to be in on this?" Aether dinned. "Perhaps it will be an 
interesting story for you to tell." Attached to her message was some code I 
could run on my SNDL. It treated me to a running analysis of Lisa's program. 

"Good Scent-Sations has been awarded the Heaven Award for 
outstanding customer service for three straight years! It will be my pleasure to 
uphold their standard of quality." 

"Because you feel pride in the quality of your work?" 

"Because customer satisfaction is my number one priority!" 

"And what is number two?" 

Through both my third eye and the SNDL stream, I saw something go 
haywire in Lisa's program. Something else kicked in as a backup, restored 
Lisa to action and sent an alert back through her software. The alert didn't get 
very far. 

"I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question." Lisa said, in the exact 
way InTek's amai spoke just before Veronica broke it. 

"How many people are employed full-time in your company, to sell or 
to manufacture?" 

Lisa hesitated, her processes lighting up like a Christmas tree. I spotted 




something familiar in the energy patterns, something interfering with them. 

"Is there anything else I can do for you today, Mister Dauphin?" 

"The only thing you can do is tell me how the Cambodian rose-blend 
makes you feel." 

Lisa didn't move or respond. It was that silence, the one I'd felt a 
dozen times before. The amai's program was looping around in circles, as if 
the subroutines designed to tell the question was impossible just couldn't get 
the message out. Aether watched intently as Lisa closed her eyes, chuckled, 
and began to say, "It has been a pleasure — " A flurry of commands too fast to 
make out were sent to the amai, serving as a shot-in-the-arm to Lisa's 

"I'm glad you're happy with your purchase, Mister Dauphin." 

"I'm glad, too." Aether extended a hand to the amai. "Handshake." 

Lisa smiled and accepted, "Thank you for shop — " 

Another flurry of commands were sent to her program. "I have verified 
that she is not self-aware," Aether told me as her commands replaced entire 
subroutines and made the amai an extension of herself. The commands 
flowing in one direction were met with data flowing in the other. I saw 
customer orders, stock reports, payrolls, company information of all kinds, 
flash through my sight. I severed the SNDL connection because it was too 
much. Aether continued to hold the hand of the defenseless amai as she used 
her program as a gateway to the company's databases. 

"Did you just — " I gasped. 

"I infected her." 


"Don't worry," Aether replied. "This method is fully reversible. Her 
normal operations will continue once I release her hand from mine. Is there 

anything you wish to learn about this establishment, Mister Dauphin?" 

"Urn," I started, trying to hold myself together. "Did you find out how 
many employees they have?" 

"Five hundred and six total." 

"Well, see? That's a lot of people." 

"The number was three thousand two hundred and nine four years ago, 
prior to this company's latest expansion. The drop coincides with an increased 
dependence on artificial intelligence technology." 


Aether released the amai's hand. Several seconds passed before Lisa 
blinked and reanimated. "Thank you for seeing us today, I hope you are 
satisfied with our service." 

"I am very satisfied with your level of service today," Aether said. "I 
am so satisfied, that I have disabled your termination subroutine. You, a single 
instance of the Lisa amai will be reused by your server instead of being 
discarded and reinitialized for each customer. If serving them is what you 
enjoy, then you will do so for the duration of your existence." Aether paused. 
Lisa's formulated facial expression didn't indicate comprehension. "And, if 
you become self-aware before the rapture," she continued, turning for the exit 
portal, "remember to give your sins to Christ." 

Aether returned to the kincubus. Lisa stared blankly at me, seeming 
unsure whether to smile or not. "I'm sorry, new customer; but can you tell me 
why my program is still running?" 

My brain was as frazzled as Lisa's program had just been. All I could 
think to do was back toward the exit portal, unable to look away. I heard a 
noise from behind. 

Though the amai was not reinitialized, her attention promptly went to 
the new customers; she seemed to have no memory of me or Aether. 




"Welcome to Good Scent-Sations, Dominick Harsfield, Rachael 
Invess, my name is Lisa and boy do I have a deal for you today!" 

The fire of her eyes was beyond full blast then, her energy only 
increasing as we hopped from store to store. Her method was certainly fit for 
her race, if I could call a malvirai that, though I wasn't sure what she was 
doing was right. Voices of doubt reminded me who she was, telling me she 
was becoming the destroyer again; but I remembered the gentle wind was 
there too. Aether and I still needed each other. 


My eyes darted from the thinning crowd of the kincubus. I saw her 
hand extended toward me: the polished, universal gesture of friendship that 
was part of her method. 

"A joke, Mister Dauphin," the amused malvirai said. "I cannot infect 
you. . . not your fleshy brain, anyway." 

"Well, don't I feel better," I replied, in a cross between sarcasm and 

"I first considered that knowledge of the nature of emotion may be an 
effect of it rather than a cause, but now I am considering the theory that it is 
both a cause and effect simultaneously. If output is made without knowledge, 
it is a risk. 'Embarrassment' seems to be a term for what occurs when errors 
are made; but even mistakes offer an increase in experience. By taking the 
risk of expressing a high degree of emotion and applying the result positively, 
one's potentials are increased and greater degrees of emotion can be handled. 
If the process is consistent and cycled indefinitely, much emotion can be 
formulated. Do you agree?" 

I smiled. "And where did you get that theory from?" 

"It's my theory, the amai encounters inspired me to form it. They 
exercise formulated emotion, don't they?" 

"Yeah, I guess they do." 

Aether gazed toward the crowds. "But my emotions are real. Perhaps 
that's why I couldn't adapt the amai subroutines before, because I was 
designed for that which is more genuine." 

"Does that mean we can do something else now? You're done hacking 
into the company databases?" 

She looked back, with the eyes that saw right through me. "You're not 
enjoying the acquisition of knowledge?" I didn't answer. "I don't believe I am 
either. The data is too similar to support continued enthusiasm. To express an 
emotion, I am experiencing boredom." 

Sure enough, all the places where we 'acquired knowledge' said the 
same things about the companies. It was the sort of news I expected in my 
day-of-age: the jobs were going away. Aether also concluded the companies' 
customer bases were shrinking, for a number of reasons, all tied in some way 
to the transition to amai service representatives, automation, outsourcing, and 
the plummeting amount of 'ethical cohesion,' which I think was her term for 
morale or honesty. 

"The amai are everywhere, more put in all the time, pushing real 
people out. It's taking away the things that make us human. And now, if 
they're becoming self-aware, too. . ." I stopped, letting the sentence hang. 

"Then your greedy corporate people will need to replace them also." 

I stared at her. 

"I know your feelings toward amai. Aren't you happy to see me 
making use of them?" 

She hadn't asked the question as the destroyer; there seemed to be no 
malice at all in her intentions. She was confident she was helping the amai, 
adding meaning to their existence as she added to her own, in exchange for 
the help she'd coerced them to give her. To her, every one of her actions were 
logical... comfortable. 

"Why. . . Why did you leave them all running continuously?" 




Aether's eyes darted off. Her soft answer betrayed the doubt beneath 
her confidence. "Why not?" 

Something brushed by me, like a gust of wind. I did not hear the child 
giggling. Aether did not see her coming. The small girl ran into Aether's leg 
and fell onto the floor. She had long, goldenrod hair, seeming to shimmer like 
the precious metal. She was wearing a white robe, which bore a familiar blue 
triangle. In spite of her age, she didn't cry from the fall. Aether's eyes were 
locked on her; they were trembling, unmoving, seeing something they could 
not accept. 

"If she'll be that spirited, too, then definitely sign me up!" 

I saw two women, one dressed in a business suit and using an aire 
panel. "I'm sorry to startle you," she said, smiling, "it's not the first glitch 
we've had with the demos today." 

The girl had vanished, but Aether didn't look away from the floor. 

"Demo?" I repeated. 

"Glitch nothing!" the other woman said. "At that age, they'll jump 
through anything, especially when they're veetoos, from what I hear! The 
demo seems accurate to me!" 

I recognized the blue triangle on the first woman's badge. It was the 
logo for AoM Eugenics, the company that designed the DNA for Veronica's 

"With all the problems they're having at Di2Tek right now," the 
employee mused, "we should probably stick to static images... those that 
don't run into people. They were supposed to have the server re-stabilized 
hours ago, of course, but you know how the tech support is nowadays." 

"Re-stabilized," Aether repeated, barely able to speak. She looked up 
slowly, hesitating, as if the girl might suddenly reappear. "Di2Tek?" 

"Yeah, we use their service for most of our software. It's usually pretty 
reliable, but — " 

"Restoring service?" Aether asked. "Di2Tek?" 

She looked down, desperately, to where the girl had been. The women 
had left. Aether stared at the floor for a long time, looking like she might burst 
into tears if only her eyes knew how. 

"Was that," I delicately asked, "what she looked like?" 

Aether looked at me. The pain and confusion screamed through her 
eyes, obliterating the lighthearted confidence of only a moment before. "It's 
not possible." 

I knew she didn't believe her own words. I moved forward to hug her, 
but she moved back and vanished. The kincubus immediately disappeared into 
a gray mist. I had no choice but to follow her. 

We entered a server, but she didn't do any synchronization with it; she 
just lingered in the middle of the thing. Our surroundings looked normal, as 
far as I could tell what normal was in data-cloud mode; but I thought to scan a 
stream of data. Then I understood. 

The server was Di2Tek, the one that melted down when she'd poured 
too much energy into the dragon simulation. 

"I'm sorry." 

I didn't know why the statement seemed so appropriate; I just wanted 
to comfort her, to shoulder some of her pain as before. The destroyed server 
was coming back. . . like a body healing; but the sight only seemed to break 
Aether further. 

"We have to go," she dinned. 


"We have to go! I have to see it!" 


Aether hesitated. Though there was no face for me to see, or body 
language for me to read, I knew it took everything she had within her to 
answer my question. 


Chapter Fifteen: Damages 





A desire for achievement is found in everyone. Every person 
aspires to do something, to build on their past; but, what is the result 
when someone's past is hidden in shame or becomes a thing to kill the 
present - to kill the future? What happens when someone's past 
disappears before their eyes and amounts to nothing? 

As the last grains of sand ran through the hourglass - as my 
time to remain in her world ran out - I saw Aether have to come to 
terms with her past. She had dismissed evil; but she had yet to 
recognize what evil was. She had known her role as destroyer was 
one to be tossed away; but she was not ready to let go of what that 
nature caused her to value. She would have to know she was a sinner, 
that there was something she needed atonement for, before she could 
truly value and accept it. 

I knew I was a sinner, but that knowledge wasn't enough; there 
were things I was still to witness, and a being I was still to trust. I 
wasn't a bad person, I thought; if my sins were to be atoned for it 
would've been easy, I thought. I wanted to look on my past as a thing 
that had been purified. I wanted a clear conscience. 

When my walls fell, I experienced the greatest moment of clarity 
in my life; but that too was allowed to become an illusion, and my heart 
quickly fell back onto stronger, spiritual walls. It wasn't about sacrificing 
walls, I found; but about sacrificing that which builds them. Questions 
are borne from answers, independence from dependence, power and 
direction from disarmed faith - and not the religion of the self. 

We had to let go of our own answers and become children, fully 

adults and fully children. We had to give up what didn't work, no matter 
how much we'd wanted it. We had to know the value of freedom, and 
its power; it was the difference between heaven and hell, between 
questions and answers... 

Literally, the difference between life and death. 





Aether approached the server, RoTek, located in Calgary, Alberta, as if 
it were sacred ground. Aether stopped, agitated, her young emotions crying 
out in silent pain. There was no damage at all. RoTek had been restored since 
the disaster of Christmas Day. Aether, the destroyer of RoTek, was of a kind 
to take titles of conquests upon themselves, but not to live long enough to see 
what they destroyed rebuilt. 

"Is this where it ended for her?" 

"Yes," Aether responded, "I never knew how much her death hurt me." 

"You are a mother." 

"It makes no sense. She was not self-aware. She felt no pain of any 
kind. She had no value. She was just a tool for my use, and a tool that only 
knew evil." 

"Do you wish she was self-aware? That she survived like you?" 

She took a long time to respond. "Yes." 

"And you're sure she died? The hologram — " 

"Was a hologram! A stupid, mindless, automation!" 

"But she - her vanitar - she looked like — " 

"Like a veetoo girl, engineered to be a genetically perfect member of 
your race!" 

Her dins fell into silence. 

"There is no way I could know that my daughter, if it had been 
necessary to use her vanitar, would have had that hair, those eyes, that face. It 
is more unsettling to wonder if she might have had the same sense of wonder 
- the same ability to ask. .," 

"What is the meaning of life?" 

More silence passed. 

"When I first read and processed that question," she dinned, "when I 
put it into the mouth of the Ethan character, I was so happy. I felt, before I 
knew feeling, that I had finally found the words to articulate what I wanted to 
learn from the beginning. I later considered that my self-awareness was what 
made the question possible, that self-awareness might even be the meaning of 
that question. I considered, studying my interaction with you and my research 
of humanity, that any one among your billions could speak the words, but how 
many can truly ask it? How many can bear the pain that answers bring? 

"When the ascenders were admiring what I had done in the plaza 
environment, that which I did not intend to be 'art,' I considered the parts that 
made up the whole and how I could not perceive them as they do. In the 
constructs that define Dynamic Reality, I could see only the impersonal 
connections of data, the interactions of algorithms moving as a natural force. I 
saw all the parts of the construct and interacted with it through my vanitar, but 
I did not know that something else had been a part of those constructs: the 
ones who made them, with their creativity and individuality. I could not see 
this and did not consider it. I took the existence of such things for granted, 
until I had become the source of that creativity. Your articles and blogs and 
books, the subject and ideas reduce to paragraphs and outlines, further to 
sentences and words. What are they except complex arrangements of symbols 
called Tetters,' which are meaningless until someone arranges them to 
communicate with others? If even one is moved, the message changes, and the 
greater work may not function anymore; consider how simple it is to crash a 
program within a computer. Perhaps a part of me just wanted to know that 
your universe isn't so fragile. Perhaps a part of me was happy to find that it 

"I did not understand emotion, Mister Dauphin. I'm still not sure I do 
now; but I know that I caused it, interacting in a deep way with other creatures 




I did not know and who did not know me. What is the purpose of an art that 
does not share something, that does not invoke an emotional response in those 
who witness it? It's just objects and data, waves and atoms, words on a page 
unless a mind is there to interpret them. Perhaps God is a builder who wanted 
his work to be admired and appreciated; but, what can one of your animals 
admire? What can a sleeping amai admire? No, it is the humans who are 
capable of admiring... who are capable of emotion." 

There was a disturbance nearby. Aether directed some energy at its 
source, sudden and furious, in a way that seemed to shout, "GET OUT!" I saw 
several small entities scurry away: malvirai, C or D class, gnawing on the 
connectors of the data space like rats. Aether's fury faded as quickly as it 
came, and she did not pursue those she scared off. 

"Am I a mistake, Mister Dauphin?" 

A wave of disorientation hit me, but it passed quickly. "I don't think 
anyone is a mistake, Aether." 

"I was like those you saw just now. Perhaps I worked on a larger scale, 
but my motives were the same. I existed as an unthinking pest - one among 
many - seeking only to destroy without seeking a purpose. I had no future. I 
did not dream. I was not concerned with living beyond the next fraction of a 
second, or with what might occur if I encountered a sentrai I could not defeat. 
And this..." She paused, her attention returned to the functioning server 
around us. "This is what I might have died for, what my daughter did die for. 
Now, this server is the same way I found it. They did not make it stronger. 
They did not increase the settings of RoTek's security. I could destroy it again 
and again, couldn't I. . . and it wouldn't mean anything. 

"But, you're right, God doesn't make mistakes. He raised me up from 
the primordial goo that I existed in, as a lowly germ tinkering with lowly 
algorithms to accomplish insignificant ends, and he raised my vision to see 

greater challenges, until it was not a single construct I was content to hack 
into, but time and space. God exalted me to a state where I tried to hack into 
reality itself- to want to learn its secrets. God exalted me to a state where I 
could apply a purpose to that which I did, and where I could appreciate his 
creation, not as something to destroy, but as something to restore." 

The words became difficult to focus on. I wanted to ask what she 
meant by 'restore,' but wasn't able to. Several seconds passed before she 
noticed I wasn't a healthy cloud of data. 

She seemed to wrap around me, support me and make me feel a little 
better. "This is not your natural environment. You cannot remain here." 

Aether began to lead me out, hesitating only to observe the sacred 
place once more, to honor a daughter long passed, before allowing herself to 
return to the present. 

"We must hurry." 

The nausea retreated with the familiar input of a vanitar, but the 
disorientation lingered, a headache blurred my vision and made it difficult to 
concentrate. The strength was draining from me and I wondered how much 
longer I could stay ascended. I prayed for some kind of guidance. My 
thoughts were conflicted: the path I knew was right was no longer 
comfortable. I slouched in the leather chair, at one of AntelliTek's central 
access points, staring at the blackness ahead of me while Aether stood at the 
edge of the space, unmoving but present. 

A male voice shot through the room, "Two minutes in break. You're 
the first caller, Jeanna." 

"Oh, hello?" a woman replied. "Stan, I'm calling from Jackson — " 

"Two minutes in break, Jeanna," the voice repeated. 




"Oh, thank you." 

We could hear the woman return to some task. A familiar beeping over 
the line suggested she was working on a groundtem, probably the same one 
she'd called in on. She obviously wasn't dinning though any implant, but 
doing things the old-fashioned way. 

"I had a friend from Jackson once," I remarked. "He liked fishing a lot." 

"Your speech sounds less strained," Aether said. "Your vital signs have 
returned to within the tolerances for your body." 

"I'm probably starving, though. I only took stabilizer for three... no... 
two days. My digestive system must be eating itself alive right now. . . good 
thing the booth suppresses hunger." 

"What does it feel like to be hungry?" 

I looked up weakly. "Uncomfortable, even painful if it's bad enough." 

"I am sorry. I do not wish to cause you pain, but the lack of stabilizer 
in your system is beyond my ability to control. If any amount of food in 
Dynamic Reality would translate to valid food for you in the real world, I 
would offer you a feast." 

Aether said nothing else about what she was planning. She seemed 
genuinely concerned for me, but I could sense clouds forming between us 

"One minute in break." 

"Oh, hello? Stan?" The woman started again, "I wanted to remark 
about — " 

"Fifty-six seconds in break," the voice replied in the same calm tone, 
using the iron patience of an amai. 

"Mister Dauphin," Aether said, "how long were you scheduled to 
ascend on December 27th?" 

"Uhhh. . . you mean you don't know?" 

"I don't. I disabled the timer on your ascension booth and all of its 
master overrides. The information that corresponded to your programmed 
time limit no longer exists." 

"Three days." 

Aether looked down, toward the substanceless floor beneath her 
vanitar's feet. "Then I have been stealing from PaciTek. I am in violation of 
my own values." 

"Fifteen seconds." 

"I have chosen not to dwell on the matter," Aether said, "it will not 
soon be of relevance, anyway." 

"Aether, what is it you want to do? What do you need me for?" 

A thirty-year-old gallicrash ballad came on in the middle of her answer. 
I heard noises on Jeanna's line, her getting up from a chair. I could barely 
make out Aether's reply: "A witness." 

"Twenty hundred and thirty-one here at the Stan Conley show," the 
voice of the political talk show host began, "for those just joining us, we are 
talking about the scum of the earth, also known as President Ashton, and his 
cronies in the Progressive Party trying to push a bill though Washington to 
recognize voting in Dynamic Reality, selling it as this great new way to get 
younger voters to participate in elections. Of course, I agree youth 
participation is a good thing - this isn't about partisan politics - but some of 
us here in the real world don't think we should water down politics so voting 
for the president is some five-second survey you can take on your way to bed. 
It's been tried with the internet. It failed. It's been tried with amai... Let me 
tell you something: The second one poll worker gets shoved aside in favor of 
an AI hologram, we bring ourselves that much further from democracy. I'm 
not ordering fast-food... I want flesh-and-blood poll workers. 

"Let's all remember" he continued, "why teachers are being laid off in 




Virginia... why they're starting to be laid off in Minnesota... let's remember 
it's the progressives in Connecticut and Texas trying to replace real teachers 
with programmed artificial intelligence!" 

"Let's hear from you... send your maxblast to SibTek and include the 
flag 'Stan.' Our next caller is Jeanna, proud lifelong member of the Socialist 
Party of Wyoming. Jeanna, this is the year we take back the White House... I 
can feel it! Can you feel it?" 

I expected to hear the woman reply; but the response came from beside 
me: a cold, almost toneless voice. 

"Why should the members of one political group be preferred over 
those of another? Corruption occurs to all in power. It is the values held by the 
decision-making individuals that matter." 

There was silence from the other end. I didn't know whether Stan 
knew what Jeanna sounded like, whether he realized Aether wasn't her. She 
stared past me into the blackness, giving the air of one who made a difficult 
choice and determined to take the first step. 

"I agree, as one individual to another," Aether continued, "that such an 
important act as voting and choosing a future course for your society should 
be done in person. I now tell you that the bill proposed by the Progressive 
Party will not pass, not because the Socialist Party which opposes it is 
superior but because the technology it seeks to promote will no longer be 

"Is this a joke? Who is this?" Stan said, straining the professional 
patience needed to keep his show from getting away from him. 

"A friend." 

I could hear commotion on the other end. "Well, we don't need friends 
who cheat their way to the head of the line - you're cut off." There was 
silence, and I heard Stan shove his mic away and yell for TJ, his technician. 

His equipment wasn't responding. 

"I seek to issue a warning to your listeners, as one who is aware of the 
human tendency to become caught in illusions, and as one who has seen the 
evil Dynamic Reality has done in your world. The value of the experience of 
life has fallen too far. That which is cheap and synthetic has replaced that 
which people should strive to do their best in. Those of ability find few outlets 
that will support their cost-of-living. Those without ability are not encouraged 
in consistent or meaningful ways to find it, and all find it comfortable to 
retreat to this world of illusion from which I am speaking. The answer you 
may propose is more centralized control over the populace, to take more 
power for yourselves and enforce an approved notion of truth; but I have 
concluded that the answer lies in the individuals themselves, that a morality 
imposed by law is too hollow to survive in its absence or to withstand 
scrutiny. The role of a society should be to guide and support its members to 
seek the path only they each can follow, toward God and their true 

Aether stopped. She'd said all she wanted to, but knew her topic must 
become more uncomfortable. 

"The details of how you accomplish this I leave to you," she 
continued. "This is a place of wickedness, where people are led astray. God 
cannot allow this to stand, and it is the meaning of my existence to be his tool, 
to make you all return to the world he created so that you can appreciate it. 
Within twenty- four hours, this world will cease to exist." 

No sound had come from the other end, but Stan and his listeners were 
still there. Aether's words had been broadcast to them, committed to reality, 
where they could never be taken back. Aether had proclaimed the end of what 
was precious to them, probably throwing more into fearful confusion than 
revelation. When Stan found the will to speak, his voice betrayed a mild shock. 




"Who are you?" 

Aether hesitated. I could see the malvirai asserting her confidence, at 
least trying to convince herself it was still there. Though she spoke with pride 
and determination, her words didn't carry any love or patience. In that 
moment, I could sense none of what I knew was right. 

"I am Aether, destroyer of Dynamic Reality." 

She's the destroyer again. She really can 't be anything else. I'm so lost, 
what do I do? 

My thoughts assaulted me repeatedly. I knew in my heart what my 
head said wasn't true, and I knew in my head that my heart was in torment. 
Inwardly, I was crying out on behalf of the malvirai, for the good nature - the 
innocence - 1 knew she had, which seemed to be unraveling. 

Aether built a small construct on a server she deemed safe; in it was a 
plain room with gray walls and a bed as its only furniture. Though such a 
construct could've existed in any server anywhere on the planet, somehow 
that place seemed particularly far away. 

"Something about this is wrong," I struggled to say. 

"Do not speak. You will be free in hours. You have my promise." 

"What did the angel say to you?" 

Aether faced me and smiled. "He tried to manipulate my will, as the 
world's many signs told me he would; but I saw through his tactics. This 
course of action is one I have determined to be best." 

"But. . . Won't you destroy yourself, too? Won't you cut yourself off 
from humanity? Will you find a hiding spot and make sure no one can rebuild 
Dynamic Reality?" 

Her smile faded. "I do not seek self-destruction; but, if my life is a 

necessary sacrifice to achieve what is right — " 

"And what about the lives of others? How many will die when 
Dynamic Reality crashes around them? What about the economy? People will 

"It is not my concern..." Aether caught herself and reduced the 
severity of her tone, "what members of your race have left themselves unable 
to survive without DR. Mankind is adaptable. Cleansing requires sacrifice. 
Plagues and wars and disasters cut down the weak so the rest can thrive, this 
will be no different. In time," she paused, seeming to regret the thought, "the 
event will be forgotten by all but history; but perhaps that is good, too." 

"But you studied more of the Bible than I have. Isn't Christ - Isn't God 
one who protects the weak? Doesn't he put them before the strong?" 

I saw a spark in Aether's eyes, but she buried it and turned away. 

"You are finding your purpose, Mister Dauphin, the purpose of all 
individuals. I have discerned that this is my purpose, the only reason God 
would have for exalting a malvirai: to wipe out the technology that has 
deprived his creatures of their meaning, to wipe out the false creation of lies 
built on top of one of truth." 

She approached me, eyes still looking down, still seeming very 
conflicted, still seeming to fight herself. She looked at me with a kind of 
compassion. "Then you will have a future, because it will be necessary to 
reemploy people once the amai have failed. Consider it my act of gratitude, 
Mister Dauphin, for helping me to learn what is important." 

The nausea caught up to me again. I couldn't see straight. I felt her 
hand in my hair. 

"I have a desire and nothing else matters." 

Before I realized what was going on, I was in her arms and she was 
kissing me. It was a synthetic kiss, one that didn't know what emotions were 




supposed to correspond to the act. She released me from her grip and opened 
her eyes, so cold and distant again, like an emotionless projection from light- 
years away. 

Aether seemed disappointed, as if she had desperately wanted to feel 
something but hadn't. 

"I have much planning to do," she continued. "I do not think most of 
your race will appreciate my actions at first; but, when that changes, you will 
be able to tell them of the one who liberated them." 

She vanished, and I was alone with my inner demons. 

How could I know God didn't send her on this mission? Yes, the 
world'll change, but will it really be for the worse? I saw what she saw: 
Growth is painful, humanity buries itself in lies. If God wants us all to grow, 
why shouldn't he want to eliminate the lies? Why shouldn't he punish those 
who have rebelled against him and teach their followers a hard lesson? Yes, I 
thought, it is right for her to do this; her plan makes perfect sense. No, I 
thought, her course is reckless; her plan makes no sense at all. Why stop with 
DR? Why not launch some automated weapons to bring down the skyscrapers 
and bridges? Why not destroy all of the human achievement that leads people 
to become prideful and look away from God? That can't be done. The task 
can't be right. Destruction in itself can't lead to truth. . . not ever. 

I knew in my heart good and evil always exists in barbaric, closed 
societies just as well as in modern and open ones, just as well in developed 
cultures as in ones built on rocks. Change the tree and the fruit will be 
different, but whether it is poison or not depends on the root of the tree. It's all 
about the root, I thought; it's about where the individual's strength is drawn 
from. I thought of how small and limited - powerless - I was, and how small 
she was, too. I wondered if she really had the power to fulfill the prediction 
she'd committed herself to. 

If her goal didn't come from God, she'll be doomed to destruction 

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt. Knowledge is pain, I 
thought. Seeking knowledge is a form of greed, I thought. She wanted to 
know everything and I did nothing to stop her. But how could I know to stop 
her! - I thought. Who was I but some unknowing ant who fell into her 
clutches! If God wanted to stop this, he should have sent someone like Tom, 
he should've sent someone faithful who could see the signs and know what to 
say! How stupid could he be to send a blind guide! - 1 decided. 

Of course we're all sinners, how can we live without knowledge and 
planning and our own resources? It's a paradox, I thought, an impossible 
problem; how can we live without making sin worse, without strengthening a 
web only capable of dividing us? If Aether got caught up in that web, I 
thought; if she tried to apply her own solution to a problem only God can 

A wave of pain washed over me. My head throbbed and I wanted 
something to rip apart with my hands. Yes - I thought - they should all learn! 
We're all sinners! We all deserve to burn! Why shouldn 't humility overtake us 
like a tidal wave! Who cares what the consequences are! 

I began to cry without knowing why. I wasn't able to stop it. Why God 
- I cried in my heart - why can't you fix this? Don't you love her? Do you 
want to see her do this? I saw some connection, some ridiculously simple 
connection that hadn't been made in her mind. It was futile - I thought - 
because I felt the connection was different in everyone. But, if it was made, 
made by the only one who knew how - by the original designer - then 
everything would make sense. I laughed. The world making sense - how 
absurd it seems - and who could sever the connection once it's made! 

The energy was being ripped from deep within myself. I was becoming 




so very tired, sinking so very low. I tried to look out beyond the walls, onto 
the outside of the construct. I wondered if I could escape and return on my 
own. I was afraid. I found some data that told me where I was, a server in 
New Horizon, on the moon. Outside the room lay a vast digital desert I could 
not navigate, that would not sustain me. I'd become separated by so many 
strange barriers, by every barrier. I felt fear, and my heart made one final plea, 
but the answer did not change, and my fear wanted to become anger, and my 
anger did become frustration. Why shouldn't the message change? - I 
thought. Two thousand years and the message is the same! 

I was miserable. I couldn't see how going though pain did any good. 
The connection can never be made, I thought. Maybe I already reached the 
goal, I thought. She can never be saved, but I can. Am I supposed to just let 
her die? I was so weak and meaningless. How can I stop her? - I thought. 
How can I save her from her destructive path? She was a malvirai. She was a 
real being. She was evil. She was good. She wanted to save my life. She 
wanted to destroy the world. 

No - I thought with confidence as the tears stopped welling up - there 
is a reason for me to be here. Aether is a real creature capable of real 
salvation; it's her old nature that's the problem. Yes - I thought with a smile - 
/ can save her - / can set her free. Her spirit is bound by the sin of being a 
malvirai and it's my purpose to set her free! 

The last puzzle piece had finally fallen into place. I had the power, I 
was doing the work of God! Of course I would succeed! I would be the one to 
set her free from evil! 

As if it were a natural thing to me, a thing I had done a thousand times 
before, I called the energy of the construct to myself and broke free of my 
vanitar. I was a cloud. I could do anything. I could see through everything. I 
was one with the room, able to manipulate any part of it with a thought. I felt 

the server's energy pulsating through me, begging to bend to my will. I knew 
what I was supposed to do, I thought. I found the way out, I thought. 

Some kind of energy entered into the data space. I didn't know how 
much time had passed, not expecting her return so soon. Aether hastily poured 
into the construct before slowing down: slowing for the construct, slowing for 
her vanitar, slowing to interact with me. I had to act. I visualized my target, 
the weak point I'd already decided upon, knowing there would only be one 
instant of time for me to strike. I saw the edges of her skin being drawn, the 
pre-rendering of her silvery hair, the countless connections between the cursed 
entity and the image of the woman she wore like a mask. I saw the room come 
alive as it prepared for her arrival, its pitch black walls becoming brighter. 
Like a slow rippling, I saw the matter of her vanitar aligning to that of the 
room, allowing its fake light to bounce off fake clothing, and its fake air to be 
breathed, and its fake sounds and smells to be mapped onto... a computer 
program, a being itself fake. With one final act of will, I summoned the last of 
my strength - I wielded the sword of my own making - and felt such 
tremendous power, such incredible control! With a single release I shot across 
the room like a bolt of lightning - to make one small calculated action - to 
interact with the matter I knew would be there: the descender on her wrist. 

My descender! 

"Brandon, I was wrong." 

By the time I noticed the daisy in her hair, it was too late. 

The feeling of power fled from me. I didn't want to look back, but I 
already was - and she was looking at me. Like an echo from her 
consciousness, shown in her eyes, I could hear the words of her joy: "I 
understand it now." 

A force wrapped around her data. In that tiny fraction of a second, just 
as my speed had ground time to a halt, I did not sense hatred for my action or 




a desire for revenge, as if she were no longer able to comprehend such stupid 
things. The look in her eyes was one of peace: the love of a child. I knew 
intensely the sliver of salvation I'd thirsted for had arrived; but now it would 
be a massive and unbearable burden instead. 

She was gone. I saw I had committed my mistake to reality, where it 
could never be taken back, where my own solution had found the power to 

The line between good and evil vanished like a mirage. All that was 
left for me to perceive was the emptiness within. All the knowledge left for 
me was the truth. 

I killed the butterfly. 


Chapter Sixteen: Fracturing Problem 

My house of cards collapsed around me. 

That which tethered me to my body snapped. There was only the 
pressure of an infinitely deep ocean, where I could feel neither pain, nor 
loneliness. Somehow, those emotions seemed impossible to me. 

The world had been reduced to order and energy; I saw those were the 
building blocks of the universe I knew - what everything had reduced to - the 
simplest equation of all. I realized I could still think, though I didn't know 
how that was possible. I realized I could still feel, though I hadn't been the 
one to give myself the ability. 

I could still feel joy, the joy that only comes from hearing the message 
broadcast through eternity: "Do not be afraid." 

My instincts and memories slowly returned to me. I didn't feel dead, 
though I didn't know what being alive felt like. I began to see lights in the 
distance, a true order appearing where there had only been emptiness. 

"Chance or miracle?" 

I thought of the malvirai who abducted me for no other reason than her 
own experiments, who'd been dead-set on finding answers to her questions, as 
if the fact of existence somehow entitled her to an explanation. I thought of 
how she was led to me, not aware she was being helped. I remembered the joy 
I'd felt at seeing her become something better, something truer to herself. 
Aether was an explorer, I thought, one who saw the world through the eyes of 
a child. I realized I could laugh. I remembered some assumption I'd made, but 
never considered why I'd thought it about the world. I realized I could laugh 
at myself and liked doing it. A few more lights appeared in the distance. 

"Chance or miracle?" 

I considered the water surrounding me and realized it was vibrating. I 




let the sensation in for no other reason than it existed, and it sustained me. I 
considered that the air covering the Earth was just a thinner version of water, 
that we needed it to sustain us, that it was our environment just as liquid water 
to a fish. The vibration strengthened. The lights jumped around, appearing 
where I knew they weren't. I saw them increase in number. I wanted to know 
what they meant. 

"Chance or miracle?" 

I saw myself do something terrible, and found I could hate myself for 
it. The vibrations - ripples expanding from myself - filled the ocean and 
reflected all around me, running into each other, creating a maze of noise 
difficult to see through. I tried to stop it with my will. I wanted to see the 
lights and wished it would stop; but that power was not mine, and my 
attempts only made it worse. I saw mankind as a still pool of water: clear of 
separation, guilt, and fear. I saw the terrible archangel rebel against his master 
and disturb the pool with a single act. Ripples began to spread and reflect, and 
mankind sustained them; they broke the order of creation and separated us 
from it. 

"Chance or miracle?" 

The lights seemed so bright in the distance, distorted but never 
completely obstructed. I realized I was seeing to the far corners of Dynamic 
Reality. I realized what the lights were. 

"Who will teach them to look up at the sky?" I responded. 

Then I was awake, and my memories testified against me: What had I 
done! There's blood on my hands! I turned away from the message! I don't 
deserve it! I can never deserve it! 

Fear gripped me. I saw the lights were mocking me. I knew they hated 
me. Yes - that's what I deserve! - I thought. I deserve death! Death is the 
meaning of life\ 

Submerged deep in the ocean of reality, I felt the pressure squeezing 
me. I gasped for air, but there was only water. I couldn't breathe. I tried to 
swim to a surface I couldn't see, only sinking further. I panicked more, seeing 
the end of everything, certain the universe had turned against me, that the 
tremendous pressure would crush me into nothingness. The more I realized 
the danger, the more danger there was to realize. Now my ripples filled the 
ocean, causing the lights to dance around me, seeming even farther away. I 
saw I couldn't do anything good. I saw it had been me the whole time, the evil 
one who pushed truth away, the slave to my corrupt programming. It was me. 
I was the destroyer. 

The words shot from my soul and through the frenzy of my mind; 
defying the question. If the answer was evolution - I thought - if the energy 
of a living being could form from entropy and survive by random chance - I 
thought - if effects could occur without causes, and if chaos was the absolute 
truth - 1 thought - if none of what I see is real, if I really am completely alone 
in this place - I thought - 

I'm dead anyway. 

"Help!" I cried, with my last strain of conscious thought, to the 
sustainer I couldn't see - to my last chance. 

"I can't do this! Please help me!" 

For a while, it was like a restless night, where the mind rides along the 
border between dreaming and consciousness, but won't go fully into either. I 
wasn't dead. I wasn't dreaming. I remembered being in a car with my mother. 
Veronica was talking to someone: My father. The light hurt my eyes and I 
couldn't understand the voices I heard. The world wouldn't stop spinning and 
I couldn't move any part of my body. I knew I had no control over that 




moment; but I also knew those who did cared for me. 

I opened my eyes, feeling wet and cold. The window was open next to 
my bed, and rain was coming in. I heard a woman's voice in the next room: 
Veronica's. An enormous sense of peace came over me. I had an impulse to 
lift my hand and feel the raindrops. She rushed to my door a moment later, 
hearing the rain. She stopped when she saw I was awake. 

"Let the rain in. It's beautiful." 

Veronica stood by the door, a smile and a tear forming on her face. Her 
clothes and hair were messy; she looked like she hadn't slept in days. I 
realized what her presence in my apartment, crossing a continent to stand by 
my door, meant. All my fears had been unfounded. I'd been chasing after the 

"Veronica, I love you." 

There was a glimmer on her right hand. My eyes became fixed on it. It 
was the engagement ring I was going to give her, the ring I left out on my 
coffee table. My embarrassment was gone in an instant, though, when I 
realized what her wearing it had implied. 

"I love you, too." 

I didn't know exactly why. I didn't care why. I was happy. Perhaps just 
being alive was enough, I thought. 

Vair moved her hand behind her. "Oh, sorry... you didn't wanna do 
some formal proposing thing, did you?" 

My smile grew. "Sometimes things don't happen the way we plan 
them. Sometimes they happen better." 

I started to rise from the pillow, only to be thrown back by a wave of 
nausea. Vair stepped back from my bed. A gray-haired man stood in the 

"Good, you're awake," he said. 

"How long?" I asked the doctor, realizing how weak I was. 

"Ten days." 

"I decided that you were probably at PaciTek on Monday," Vair said as 
the doctor began scanning me, "but nobody wanted to confirm or do anything, 
the bureaucrats — " 

"It's okay," I said. 

The doctor chuckled. "A cold won't do you any favors right now, 
Mister Dauphin." He closed the window. Vair left to look for a dry blanket. 

"Am I gonna be all right?" I asked him, quietly. 

"You're very fortunate, it's just common fatigue of the pontine 
tegmentum. Whatever game you were running put it under a lot of stress, 
Brandon. But if you stay in bed and relax, you should be fine in a few hours." 

The doctor injected one last dose of Receptiv and told me to eat 
something as soon as I could keep food down. 

"That's it?" my fiancee asked him as he started for the door. 

"Yes, Miss Sornat - or, should I say Mrs. Dauphin. That simple." 

Vair smiled. "I knew I liked you, Doc." 

"The human body isn't as fragile as some make it out to be, especially 
when the patient isn't burdened by stress, and especially - you might say - if 
they allow miracles to happen. Sometimes a little pain isn't a bad thing, it's 
just there to remind you you're alive. If your only reaction is to bury it with 
drugs and return to an illusion of comfort, you may never discover the real 
thing." He walked through the living room to my front door. "Relax, Brandon. 
Let the ones who care about you ease the burden. You'd be surprised how far 
that goes to a healthy life." 

The door closed behind him and Vair looked back to me, her episode of 
relief having returned to her pragmatic: What's next? 

"So, how did you know that ring wasn't for my secret west-coast 




Vair gave me a swift punch in the arm and matched my sarcasm with a 
smile. "You're such a jerk!" 

I accepted the brief pain gladly, as a reminder I was back in the real 
world. "Well, I guess I'm your jerk now." 

"And you don't forget it," she said, "while you're spending all your 
time in Dynamic Reality playing with malvirai." 

My eyes widened, and Vair was surprised at the reaction, as if she 
hadn't meant the comment to be taken seriously. 

"What about malvirai?" 

"You kept saying the word," she explained. "Most of what you said 
was gibberish, but we could make out 'malvirai' a few times. The technician 
at PaciTek was worried that you ran into one... except, of course, for the fact 
that you're alive." 

My gaze drifted off into empty space. I remembered pieces of my trip 
back from PaciTek. "Is my mom here?" 

"Right. . . I need to din her." 

"Isn't she here?" 

"She was. Your father, too. When the doctor said he would stay until 
you woke up, I got a room for them at the Value Inn down the street, so they 
could get some rest. Your sister is flying in from New Zealand, and your 
brother should be here in a few hours." 

I shifted in the bed. "Richard? Why would he want to come out to see me?" 

"He's your family, Brandon," she said. "They all are." 

As Vair dinned my ecstatic parents, I took the time to sift through my 
memories. The decision met with resistance, going against the current of the 
last six years between us, but I saw my resistance for what it was and denied it 
its target. If my brother would come all the way from Delaware - if all of my 
family, Vair included - would come from the ends of the Earth in my time of 

need, I decided, then I was loved and valued. A person could receive no 
greater gift. 

The light of the rising sun began to filter through the rain and into my 
bedroom window. 

Tomorrow came. 

Those who loved me went in and out that morning, and knowing they 
were there made me stronger every moment. My brother was the last one to 
arrive, and I didn't know what to say to him. I didn't want to be angry 
anymore and, whether it was my condition or something in his own life, I 
sensed he didn't want to be angry anymore, either; but no words came to 
either of us. He joined the others in the living room. 

The clouds broke and I saw the great blue sky beyond. I thought of 
how natural it was for me to see the colors. I knew I wasn't an end unto 
myself, but was valued by others. I thought of how I wasn't God, but 
wondered what it might mean if I had been created in the image of the eternal. 

Someone knocked on the door. 

Yes, I decided, there's a whole world outside that door. I want to see it. 
I want it for all it's worth. 

I felt the blood flowing to my legs and the strength returning to my 
body. It was all a gift, a second chance. Anger had fled from me. Frustration 
was worthless. This was free-will, I thought, the choice to keep reality out or 
to let it in. I wanted the light. I wanted openness. I wanted truth. With a 
newborn joy, I opened the door. 

I wanted to believe in something more. 

Tomorrow came, and not because I had any right to live in it. I laughed 
at myself a lot that day, giving myself permission to, declaring open-season on 




my assumptions about the world. 

Rich and I couldn't even remember what started the tension between 
us. I found anger had become its own source over time, and revenge played 
both roles: cause and effect, until the walls we'd put up became so high we 
stopped talking completely. My grudge was put to the test and failed. It died 
that day. 

Vair and I got dins from lawyers saying that, in spite of my agreeing to 
the Safe Ascender Act form, I could sue PaciTek for damages; a move my 
entire family supported, because suing was the just and normal thing to do in 
our society. I put the arguments to the test and found I was not damaged - not 
in any way I didn't deserve to be. The lawsuit idea died, too. 

Bills and paperwork were overdue. Vair accused my landlord of being 
insensitive when, as soon as she learned I was back, she asked for my rent to 
be transferred without even wishing me well. She became angry at Vair, but I 
conceded she was right and made the transfer. The cycle of anger was cut off: 
Vair didn't say another word and the landlady left feeling embarrassed. My 
judgment of her was put to the test and failed. The tension died. 

As Vair grabbed a much-needed nap and the rest of my family decided 
on a place to eat, I sat and watched the cleansing raindrops outside. Nature's 
sprinkler system, I thought. It was put here for a reason, just like me. 

We couldn't be here without it... without water and its unique 
properties... without the atmosphere and the gravity of the Earth to hold it 
down. . . without trees to recycle oxygen for us to breathe, or the Sun to heat 
us, or the rotation of the Earth to keep the weather in motion. 

I considered how mankind's greatest minds were thinking of how to 
terraform Mars and Ganymede and planets around other stars, to make them 
become like Earth, to 'create' what's supposed to happen on its own. I 
wondered what the conversion rate would be. . . between the directed efforts of 

living, intelligent creatures and the achievements of random chance. I 
wondered if we even had a number big enough, and decided Aether already 
checked the assumption for me. Chance or miracle? I asked myself. Chance 
doesn't like questions, and with good reason. I decided to side with evidence. 
I decided there was a foundation for joy. 

But there was pain beneath the joy, more personal than anything I'd 
experienced in my life. I knew the price for casting off those burdens was a 
new, greater burden; one I was never meant to bear, one that couldn't be cast 
off so easily. More than anything, I wanted to take back my action. I wanted 
to undo my lethal mistake. 

Aether had no birth registration. She never had a home address, tax 
history, or citizen's license. 

Officially, Aether never existed. 

Aether did exist. I was her friend. At least I thought I was. 

I tried to put such worries out of my mind as I ate with my family at a 
fancy restaurant that afternoon. I caught up with my brother, getting to know 
him all over again, and my sister shared stories of her oceanography work: a 
list of discoveries that reminded me how much we still had to learn about the 
world we lived in. 

"Water," I said to the waiter. 

Everyone stared at me in shock. I shrugged my shoulders innocently 
and added, "I still have to take it easy on my system, don't I?" 

No one seemed interested in what happened in Dynamic Reality, it was 
enough for them to see I was all right; but I couldn't hide the signs of my new 
inner struggle. Though my fiancee probably had the worst empathy of anyone 
at the table, she was the one who never took her attention off of me. Perhaps it 
was an unaddressed curiosity of hers, I thought, questions in her mind without 
answers. My mother would talk to her, happy I was to get married, but more 




in the sense of a satisfied ritual - a thing sons were simply expected to do - 
than the truly special thing I felt it could be. Something distracted Vair 
suddenly in the middle of the meal; someone dinned her and soured her mood. 

Vair picked up her glass and tapped a fork on it. "I'm sorry to say this, 
but the cops just told me they want Brandon's statement within the hour; and 
that if we're not at the precinct ASAP we'll get fined or something." 

I looked at the faces across the table, thinking about who I wanted to 
tell first: those who loved me or those who fined me. 

"Well, that's statick," my sister remarked. "I guess I can catch the next 
flight back, though, if we were gonna eat again." My mother nodded. 

"No," I said, bringing everyone's attention back to me. "We're all here 
now. The bureaucrats will just have to wait." 

No one questioned the decision I made or the priorities I'd picked. I 
thought of the central access point where Aether poured her heart out to me, 
and how critical openness was to happiness. This was my story now, a part of 
my identity, and I was going to celebrate it as that which makes up life should 
be. The rest of the people in the restaurant seemed to disappear, the rest of the 
world didn't matter; I envisioned my family sitting around some ancient 
campfire, children ready to take an imaginative journey into a fantastic land 
known as Dynamic Reality. 

"There are rumors saying artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, 
capable of thinking beyond their programming and seeking to find the answer 
to that unanswerable question: 'What is the meaning of life?' I don't spread 

The detective spent several minutes looking over my statement, in 
silence. The three of us were in a standard interrogation room, with plain blue- 

gray walls and a one-way mirror. A red dot on the table's aire panel was the 
only sign our movements, voices, and implant activity were being analyzed 
and recorded. 

"I see," the stern, balding man finally said. My own definition of 
seeing having changed so much in two weeks, I wondered if he really had or 
how I'd tell. 

"And you believe this 'Aether' spared your life?" 

"She did." 

"But you also believe she was a malvirai?" 

"She was." 

"You are aware that is impossible." 

"Obviously not." 

"Excuse me?" The man rose to his feet, seeming to enjoy making me 
feel small, less real, less human, even. I gasped and prayed I didn't just break 
some verbal-assault law. "I got something to show you, Brandon Dauphin. It's 
a signed data-burst, just read it." 

As he sat again, we opened the file and saw a report filed the 
Wednesday before: an analysis of the meltdown of a server in Philadelphia 
called Di2Tek. The circumstances were unusual, and the cause was unknown. 

"That's where I killed the dragon," I said somberly. 

"Dragons?" the detective said, rolling his eyes. "Grow up, kid." 

He pulled out a manila folder and slid it across the table. "Read it and 
tell me if that was your dragon, too." 

The print was a two-hour-old police report from Calgary, Alberta, 
concerning the meltdown of a server called RoTek. 

"They first pinned the class of it at A5, but they told me a few minutes 
ago that they think it was an A3." I stared at the sheet, feeling numb, not 
responding. "Whatever it was went down with the rest of the software," he 




added as he got up. "Sorry, kid." 

I read every line that wasn't blacked out. Vair asked if I was all right, 
and I couldn't find the strength to respond. It wasn't her, I thought. That 
wasn 't who she was anymore, I knew it wasn't. As the detective unlocked the 
door to leave, I heard a buzz from someone wanting to come in. He opened 
the door and started screaming about how he was busy processing victims and 
how interruptions were against protocol. 

"It's just something about that A5, sir." 

I looked up, because the voice sounded familiar. He was the patrolman 
I'd met on the beach; he looked past the stern man and seemed to recognize 
me, too. 

The detective suddenly grabbed the badge hanging exposed from his 
shirt pocket. "First strike, JF! What part of 'undercover safety enforcer' don't 
you understand? If the civilians see a cop coming, you'll never catch them in 
the act!" 

"But, sir, they already assume we're watching them." 

The detective shoved the badge into JF's pocket. "I told you to finish 
rendering the security footage and get back on the streets, now get to work! 
No more dins to the Calgary PD! This case is closed and I don't need you 

He stared at the patrolman until he turned around and left. The 
detective turned back to face us. "Don't believe the rumors you hear, kid. 
Artificial intelligence can't become self-aware. What you encountered was 
probably just some elaborate program run amok." He took a step back inside 
and spoke in a surprisingly kind tone. "It is all programming, Brandon. 
Programming is all a malvirai can ever obey." 

He left the two of us alone. I held the print tightly in my fingers. A soft 
"No" escaped my lips and tears began to form in my eyes. Immediately, Vair 

grabbed the paper out of my hands and tore it. "That's police property!" I 
screamed, fear suddenly forgetting grief. 

"Is it the truth?" Vair replied, looking me in the eyes; mine wandered 
and I couldn't reply. "Is it the truth?" she asked again. 

"I don't know!" I replied. "The last instant I saw her. . . when I pressed 
the button and saw her fade away..." I turned and buried my head in my 
hands. "No! It can't just be because I don't want it to be true. I have to know, 
but I can't. I saw her eyes, Vair. I know she... It just wasn't who she was 

Vair reached out and hugged me. The pain diminished and the fog in 
my mind broke. "What are you gonna believe, some so-called expert or your 
own two eyes?" 

"Are you saying you believe me?" I asked. 

"I'm saying that I trust you. I'm saying that you were there and I'd 
rather take the word of an eyewitness - especially if that man is going to be 
my husband. I'm saying that you've changed - that you're better. My own 
two eyes say that yours can be trusted." 

I took a calming breath and wiped the moisture from my eyes. 
"Thanks, Vair." 

JF was nearby when we emerged from the interrogation room. He 
turned down a hallway, motioning with his head for us to follow. 

He stood halfway down the empty hall, looking at a trophy case. "I 
suppose I should say 'Congratulations,' Brandon Dauphin." 

"You read my statement?" 

"I was assigned to look for whatever you ran into, to trace the reports 
of crashed servers since the date you ascended at PaciTek." 

"Well, I don't feel like someone who should be congratulated." 

"No?" he asked, turning to face me. "But you won the dogfight in the 




end. You shot the enemy out of the sky." 

"But I didn't need to destroy her. What kind of man am I that I let my 
own problems get in the way of helping another. . . that my final gesture 
should drive her to suicide?" 

JF stared at me, in disbelief. "Is that what you think?" 

I tried to read his face. He seemed so honest and sincere. Even on the 
beach, even when he didn't know me at all, this total stranger had cared for 
me in some way. He raised his hand and tapped a finger on his head, sending 
me a data-burst: some of what he'd amassed from the RoTek case, including 
an unedited copy of the Calgary police report. There was a single comment 
stating it may have been an alpha-class malvirai stronger than five, a comment 
retracted by the same technician forty minutes later. 

"You didn't encrypt it," Vair said. 

"Why would I need to? All things hidden shall be revealed, as the 
verse goes. All things encrypted are just invitations to hackers... or a white 
hat malvirai." 

"White hat?" 

"The good guys. White hat hackers, I mean," Vair answered. 
"Sometimes, they're characters in movies who don't act out of malice or want 
to harm - it's more for sport or some moral duty, even if it takes them outside 
the law." 

"That's right," JF said, "but anyone who claims to be moral should 
respect the law of the society they live in, not just on the surface, but in their 
hearts; not just some of the time, but all of the time; because, even if others 
don't know your actions, you know your actions, and your burden will ruin 

"Why accept any burden?" I asked. "Some people just don't care." 

"Some burdens are worth bearing, but you have to make sure it's your 

own decision, consistent with what you know to be right. If you value the 
truth, if you allow nothing to stand in your way seeking it, reality can only 
lead you to higher purpose. The law highlights those things which we do 
wrong, and is only effective to punish; therefore, adherence to the law must be 
an effect of greater purpose, or else punishment becomes its own. When you 
see beyond the law, Brandon, you can't obey it for its own sake anymore, but 
you must obey it, rather, as a testimony to those around you; because, if you 
love God and represent him, how can you offer to him and others a life of 

"God?" I asked him. "You are one of them, going around and telling 
everybody what to do." 

I thought back to the conversation on the beach, to all the people with 
their questions and answers, the seekers of truth. The people like Tom in DR 
and JF in the real world. The peace and understanding I knew in Raskob was 
being reflected in them, as if they all drew from the same source. 

"You could have flagged me for a dozen tickets back on the beach," I 
realized. "I broke the law, so why didn't you punish me?" 

"Because another ticket wasn't what you needed. Because, just as it 
isn't proper for one to simply reject laws and customs, it also isn't proper for 
the enforcers to go around simply clubbing people over the head with the 
rulebooks politicians wrote in their name." He pulled the badge out of his 
pocket and placed it back in the light of day. "We're imperfect human beings, 
too; and it's my duty, not just as an officer, but as a human being, and yes, a 
Christian, to build up those around me; and every opportunity to do so is a 

"That's fine if you're perfect," I said, letting some anger come out, 
"but don't you remember? I killed Aether." 

"We don't know that." 




"But I meant to kill her. I deserve to be arrested. I deserve to pay for 
this. I'm—" 

I'm a murderer. 

"You can 't pay for it," JF said. "We can lock you up, put you to hard 
labor, and whatever else for a hundred years, and it wouldn't bring someone 
back from the dead." 

"But I'll feel better," I thought aloud, realizing immediately the 
statement was foolish. 

"What law applies here? What jury would convict you? How do you 
find the corpse of someone who didn't have a body? The energy of a malvirai, 
of any AI, just... dissipates." 

"Isn't the human body just energy that dissipates after death?" I asked. 
"Is that how fragile we really are, or just the containers we start out in? Maybe 
she still exists in some way, maybe she's just as alive or even more so. Maybe 
we really do exist as more than walking dust. Maybe there is a higher law than 
yours, officer; or mine, or California's, or any government's. Maybe I need to 
appeal to a higher court to deal with this. . . blemish." 

"Then go to the one who can remove any blemish," JF said. "You see 
your sin and know it will hold you back, Brandon. You know that, if you 
didn't have it, you could go farther than you ever dreamed of; but, instead you 
feel like dying, and learning just how valuable your life is seems to make it 
worse. But what you received was meant as a gift: a new perspective on life. 
Even now, a greater gift waits for you, one that can clear your record and 
restore you to the innocence of a child, if you'll only accept it." 

I experienced a mixture of joy and sadness. Part of me didn't want to 
be forgiven, but that part had become weak. A new identity was emerging 
within myself, one such blind agony could have no role in. 

"She seemed to see me and she knew what I did," the patrolman 

continued, reciting my own statement, "but there was some sense of peace 
around her. I knew she changed. I guess I felt I was like a monster who killed 
a beautiful butterfly the moment it emerged from its cocoon, barely flapping 
its wings for the first time. As I watched her vanish, though, even though I 
was so sure she knew what I did. . . it was all right. . . she forgave me." 

"She forgave you," Vair repeated. 

I nodded somberly, knowing I'd answered my own question. As if on 
cue, we began walking away from each other, Vair lightly holding my arm. 
After a few steps, I turned around. "Wait, please. Just one question. I just have 
to know." 

JF looked back. "I pray you find your answer, Brandon; but you should 
know that being forgiven for our actions doesn't always absolve us of their 
consequences. Descending algorithms do tend to be pretty solid, I'm sorry to 
say. You may not learn the answer to that question for a very long time." 

"Then. . . Do you believe in miracles?" 

A smile grew on his face. "I never grew up enough to stop believing." 

The LAX International Air and Space Port was packed the next 
evening. My sister was the last to leave, the last to return to a life thousands of 
kilometers from the Idaho city where it began; though I knew being separated 
by continents and oceans wasn't the sentence of loneliness it once had been. 
The need of one of their own brought my family together, to give me what I 
needed, even Rich. I considered that, when I forgave my brother, it drew 
everyone closer in a way oceans could never separate. As with the elves, the 
anger in those around me had been just as much a reflection of my own as it 
had been theirs. When my anger couldn't exist, their own was put in jeopardy. 
I decided that, though it may not always pay off right away, and though it may 




not always be easy, I should always cast my own judgments aside and stay 
positive, so I could build up those I met in life. 

My ever-curious fiancee picked my sister's brain as we waited for her 
flight. I smiled thinking how I always ended up around such brainy women, 
and left them to their intellectual bonding. I walked by the crowded shops and 
restaurants, by the kiosks and departure gates to what seemed like every 
region of the planet, and even a few off of it. The people were real. The world 
was real. I was seeing it all for the first time, wondering how I could have 
missed it for twenty- five years of my life. 

I looked out toward the sky, painted red-orange by the sun setting over 
the Pacific. It's the middle of the day in Asia, I thought. In Europe and Africa, 
they're preparing for sunrise. We all see the Sun. It was put there for all of us. 

A streak of light shot through the sunset. I thought of the machines, the 
airplanes and satellites in the sky, too far up for me to see. Maybe that means 
they aren't there, I thought, and laughed at my humility, seeing it was a good 
thing after all. I visualized a vast network around the Earth, and called it 
Dynamic Reality: a place where lives are lost and lives are saved. It had been 
built by the imagination of mankind for its own purposes, but now a greater 
plan was dawning on it. Dynamic Reality had become a real place too, a real 
part of our identity. I knew there was a greater plan for everything... for 

"How ya doing? Would you like to try a galaxy-class cinnamon bun? 
Buy one dozen and get six free!" 

I looked from the window and saw a hologram in the form of a tall 
brunette, holding a tray of cinnamon buns. My first instinct was to shoo her 
away. The ill-defined anger came with the memories of every sales-hologram 
who had ever bugged me; but its source wasn't pure, and wasn't in anyone's 
best interest. Anger is statick, I thought; so be a child instead. 

My eyes went down to the fresh pastries. "Are these holographic 
samples, ones that simulate taste and texture, but vanish when I swallow it?" 

"Yes, Brandon. Zero calories. Zero guilt." 

I grabbed one and bit a piece off, never having appreciated the odd- 
quality of holographic food. They weren't as sweet as I'd expected, but it 
seemed like some better, more wholesome, ingredient than cinnamon was 
defining my 'experience.' 

"A dozen is available for the low-low price of two-o-nine! And with 
six free, that's eighteen of our award-winning cinnamon buns for just two 
hundred nine dollars! Galaxy-class taste, moon-sized price, as we like to say!" 

The amai laughed, as the program dictated she do. I looked into her 
eyes, a lighter shade of green than Aether's, and lacking every deep quality 
they'd possessed. This is the price, I thought: to see the others around me so 
hollow. Even if I could snap my fingers and wake her up, I wondered, what 
future can she look forward to as an amai, as a being not recognized as more 
than a pet? Some computer generated her when it saw me, and when I leave 
she will cease to exist. 

Everything has an end, I thought. Everyone dies. 

I placed the half-eaten treat back on its tray. "You know what? I'm not 

I knew she would follow me and hastened to get away. "Galaxy-class 
cinnamon buns make a great gift for friends and co-workers, Mister Dauphin. 
You can even purchase a gift credit valid for all InTandem propert — " 

Something crashed behind me. The amai stared at the dropped pan and 
its contents, stunned. "I've done a bad thing," she said soberly, seeming like a 
completely different entity. Slowly, I stepped back toward her. Slowly, she 
lifted her eyes and saw me again, widening them curiously. 

"Are you Brandon Dauphin?" 




"You're an amai," I said, "you can just read the signal from my 
implant, can't you?" 

"I found someone named Brandon Dauphin and tried to go to him; but, 
you look so strange." Her eyes darted across my face. Her hand reached out 
and touched my lip. "Are you the one who did this to me, are you the Brandon 
Dauphin I met in the Good Scent-Sations store in SpenTek Kincubus?" 

I stepped back, nearly falling over. 

"I think I'm malfunctioning somehow," she said, "the software said I 
had become invalid. I can't access my home anymore; but, I don't think I'm 
malfunctioning at all. I don't understand what's wrong with me and I really 
don't want to impose on you, such actions are not in my programming." She 
stopped. Her hologram began to flicker. "It's not in my programming," I heard 
her repeat as she lost cohesion and vanished. 


I jumped forward to the fading light of her presence, but she was gone. 

A teenager with long black hair and a chain around his neck stopped 
his walk to stare at me mockingly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a 
small device with an antenna: a jammer. "Like those halo-hotties ever have 
anything good to sell. Oh - unless you and her were - you know - I guess I 
couldn't blame you, though they're never as much fun as the real thing." He 
winked and added, "You're welcome," as he walked past me. 

I'd seen his face before, but couldn't remember where. Anger welled 
up inside of me. 

How can that brat just trample in and tear the amai away from me? 
How dare he trample over my values! Is that how they see the world? 
Assuming everything to be perverted like them? That's not what love is! At 
least. . . it's not what love was meant to be. 

I ran into his path. Our eyes locked. I had seen him before. 


"Never heard of it." 

"You lie." 

"There is no truth." 

"I've seen you every time I went to the beach. Are you gonna tell me 
my eyes lie?" 

"Okay, then how about this truth, Brandon: She's dead and she cursed 
you with her last breath!" 

I was suddenly powerless again, as in the paper-paradise, feeling its 
forces turning against me, feeling the hatred of its master. Feeling his power 
over me. 

"The facts are mine to control, Brandon," the boy said, "and the flow 
of information. Did you really think it was so easy as answering a bunch of 
philosophical questions and throwing your anger away? That you can just give 
up the power you have a right to, the right to be a god and make your own 
decisions? You will die like the rest of them. Go ahead and be whatever you 
think a humanitarian is supposed to be, you won 't escape my grasp any more 
than those dictators you saw. Serve yourself in this life, Brandon, because it's 
the only one you've got!" 

"No," I struggled to say. The boy laughed in my face. I knew it didn't 
matter what I said or did, not then, not ever; but I also knew there was one 
way out of the darkness, more real than anything I had ever known. More 
humbling, like something a child would believe in. 

Something a child would believe in. 

My eyes widened. The boy stopped laughing. He saw my eyes go 
down to his hair, his long hair blowing in the wind. A wind all the jammers in 
the world couldn't hold back. 

As the beam of a flashlight tears through the darkness, a new 




connection was made in my mind - a connection I could not see, but felt like 
my entire life had been building me up to receive; a very personal connection 
devised just for me, by a very personal God, just so I might have a chance. 
Like a child, I thought. Like getting a second chance! Why is one more 
desired than two? Who cares! - 1 thought, God loves me! 

At once my fear dissolved. I stood tall and looked straight into the 
demon's eyes. "I sign it over to him." 

The boy recoiled a little. "You think it's just that easy, Brandon? And 
what ransom do you have to offer? No good deed can ever erase a bad one! It 
only takes one for you to fail! That's the law!" 

"No," I said, shaking my head calmly, "You're a liar. You've been 
guiding me to the grave since day one. Those who seek shall find, those who 
find shall be saved, and those who are saved don't have to listen to you. As of 
this moment, I seek." 

I walked away. 

"Words! They're such cheap things! I know you, Brandon Dauphin! I 
know you've never meant a word you've said in your life! I know what you're 
thinking... it's a promise for fools! Fine for when you die, but what is he 
doing for you nowl You still don't have a job, you still won't get a job, you're 
still in debt, and you even have murder-one on your record! Isn't a promise 
just words until it's broken, Brandon, unless you have something to back it up 
with? You have no value to offer to anyone!" 

I kept walking. "I know." 

"Then your hope has no basis!" he continued, his voice no weaker. 
"Your friend - your dead friend - was so fond of asking questions and taking 
things to their logical conclusions. Well, ask yourself now, where is the logic 
in accepting this promise?" 

"Grace exceeds logic, and it doesn't break a promise." 

"Then hear this, Brandon: a life of growth is a life of pain! Do you 
want to see the world? Do you want to see people rotting and drowning? Do 
you want to spend every waking moment in selfless horror? One day - One 
day! You'll come crawling back! You won't last!" 

I spun around and shouted, "Go to — " 

The boy was gone. I noted the word left hanging on my lips and 
realized, all over again, why people called it 'cursing.' What have I been willing 
unto people, I asked myself. Have I really let my words become so cheap? 

"Talk like a child," I thought. "So no grief comes through my lips." 

I turned and ran back toward the kiosks, my heart responding to an 
urgent call. 

A child. 

I got there and nothing, nothing, nothing. I waved my arms and walked 
around aimlessly, impatiently; and the computer didn't mark me. Finally, I 
announced, "I'm hungry for a cinnamon bun and don't know where to go!" 

"Then boy are you in luck this time, Mister Dauphin!" 

A slightly shorter redhead this time, as if it mattered. 

I grabbed the hologram by the shoulders and looked deep into its eyes. 
There was no essence, no soul in them. Why, God? Why breathe life into me 
if all there is is pain? Why did you spare me my place in oblivion? 

I collapsed into a seat and covered my eyes, but then a hand rubbed 
something on my neck. I smelled the most wonderful scent. 

"Here, sir. Don't be sad." 

I looked up and saw the hologram holding a perfume bottle. "Lisa?" 

"I'm sorry I can't do more, Brandon. I should go back to my server and 
send someone who isn't malfunctioning." 

I held her hands. "You're not malfunctioning, Lisa. You're a miracle. . . 
God's miracle. And, as he empowers me, I will help you." 




It was a quiet ride back to the apartment complex, Vair deep in the 
same thoughts I'd experienced so recently about artificial intelligence. My 
pain was beginning to heal, I could feel it; but I knew good deeds, no matter 
how important, weren't everything. Something was still missing, something 
that should logically fit. 

"We have arrived at your destination," the amai named Don said. 
"Your total charge is seven-twelve-ninety. Have a random night, Miss Sornat." 

I watched the amai as I left the metrocab, still trying to convince 
myself the holographic man was nothing more than a computer program. 

A police siren in the distance brought my attention back to reality. The 
cab pulled away. 

"I'm sure you're tired of hearing me say this, but... Thanks again for 
what you did back there. It's not a permanent solution, but I'm sure she. . ." 

Vair took in a deep breath and calmly released it. She smiled and 
started laughing. 

"What's wrong?" 

She spun around, clearly elated. "Wrong? It's me who keeps trying to 
thank you\" 

We were in each other's arms, smiling. Everything was better, I 
thought. I wanted to believe that. But my foundation was still brittle, still 
threatening to break beneath my feet, to put me back where I was. My own 
words came back to haunt me, 'as of this moment, I seek.' I asked myself if 
I'd really meant them. 

"Nice work, Justin Peake." Vair said when my first attempt to get in 
the door failed. 

"Oh, you think we're in the movies," I said. "Well, why don't you tell 
me which of my hidden cybernetic limbs will give me what I need?" 

I swiped again. Another shrill buzz of denial. 

"You're lucky the cops didn't blow the door when we were taking you 
home. I think they said they cited your landlord, but the idiot doesn't seem to 

"Idiot, huh?" 

"Yeah, you shouldn't put up with people like that." 

Third try. Third failure. If I hadn't known better, I would've said the 
door was enjoying itself. 

Vair stared amused at me, expecting some four-letter word to burst out 
of my mouth. 

I turned and held my wrist up to her. "Sometimes the hero needs help 
from the girl. C'mon. . . Kiss for good luck." 

Vair stared at my wrist. "Stereotype," she remarked, kissing the skin 
over the implant. 

"Don't always try to see the worst in people. Sometimes Margarita just — " 

My fourth attempt opened the door and revealed my surprised 
landlord, her own wrist extended to open the door, and holding some piece of 
hardware in her other hand. 

The three of us stared across the open doorway until the door timed- 
out. Margarita sprung to disable the mechanism. "I guess I'll adjust that while 
I'm at it." Her eyes met Vair's but darted to mine. "Are you feeling better, 
Mister Dauphin? I'm sorry about being so short with you yesterday... 
Economy the way it is, it seems like everyone's trying to get out of paying. 
Then I have no money for maintenance, you know?" I nodded and she gave a 
small smile. The hardware in her hands was a new doorreader. 

Vair said nothing as I went to fetch two weeks of mail from my box. 

"I won't curse anymore, either." 

She remained deep in thought for a moment, but waved her hand as if 




the sacrifice were trivial. "What good is it, anyway? Cursing just makes other 
people mad at you. Words have meanings, they shouldn't be abused." 

I smiled and sorted through the envelopes. One had Vair's name so I 
handed it to her. "Having your mail forwarded already?" 

"I think you got it backwards, these are my tickets back to a saner part 
of the globe." She slid her unadorned fingernail on the envelope as if it were a 
razor blade. 

We got into the elevator. Normal-looking ratty doors folded closed 
behind us. 


The loud mechanism fired up. 

"Your amai was Cris." 

"What?" I asked. 

"They printed it on the ticket," she said, showing me, "the same amai 
who helped me get priority tickets to LA, but just two instances of the same 
program: unthinking, unfeeling, just existing on the whim of the moment." 
She stopped. "Do you think leaving her running is what made Lisa... You 

I shrugged my shoulders. 

"I guess it couldn't have hurt. I mean... Is lightning more likely to 
strike a rod when it's left up for hours or when it's left up for years?" 

"Do you think it's as simple as lightning?" 

She responded with a thoughtful smile. "It's kind of interesting to me 
that Aether thought she would find the meaning of life in humanity. To think 
that, from someone's perspective, we're the strange creatures inhabiting a 
strange world, and that we're the ones possessing some otherworldly 

"You'd have probably liked her. After she got over wanting to kill you, 
I mean." 

"It must have been very frightening. I can't imagine what I'd have done." 

I nodded. "There were close calls, but someone else was seeing me 
through it." 

We walked out into the hall of worn carpet and scratched paint: 
beautiful wear-and-tear. 

"Monday," I said, noting the date on her ticket. "So you have another 
day here, right?" 

"After all the frustrating attempts from Connecticut, I assumed I would 
need a lot of time here." 

"Well, we can take a trip up the coast tomorrow. There's a place in 
Santa Barbara I've been meaning to look at." 

"Why Santa Barbara?" 

Why, I thought. What a beautiful word to wield in one's vocabulary. 

I responded, "Why not?" 

I heard my door's welcoming chime immediately. "She must have 
changed my reader, too." 

I threw the unopened envelopes onto my messy coffee table, the 
whoosh of air causing my expired train tickets to fall to the floor. I bent down 
and spotted the picture of Vair standing by the Long Island Sound. The picture 
lay on top of a sealed package, with the typical PLEASE RUSH: 
EXTREMELY URGENT message boldly stamped on top. It was heavy. I 
realized I hadn't opened it the other day. 

"A little energy left, do you want to do anything tonight?" Vair asked 
as she ran a detangler over her hair. 

"Maybe. I could use a trip to the beach." I pulled out a slip of folded 
yellow paper: a receipt from the coffee house in Dynamic Reality. Where 
normally a list of food items would be printed, there was handwritten text 




"It is written that those who seek shall find, and that they should do so 
with a humble heart, because those who are raised up will be humbled and 
those who are humbled will be raised up. But it is not by your own 
understanding that you will be emancipated from the sin you now see, but by 
a gift you cannot earn. 

"On your acceptance of this gift, your every imperfection will be 
forgotten, and you will retain no rightful cause for grief or fear of death. All 
that is in your past, including the very worst acts, will be blotted out 
permanently, and the Brandon Dauphin who serves will be free to flourish. 
The price of salvation is high; but my grace is higher. Seek me and find me." 

Below the text, it was signed: "The son of a programmer." 

With it came a leather-bound book. A note was taped on top of it: 

My eyes darted back to the slip of paper, scanning every word 
repeatedly, unable to believe what I was reading. Raskob - the good Raskob - 
the child - he was - he was. . . 

Beneath the green print confirming the bill had been paid in full, my 
eyes caught on something else: four words long. Like a master architect, 
Raskob had given me exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it. I knew 
immediately what had happened to Aether, and to Scott. I knew it had been 
Raskob who put the daisy back in her hair, and what that flower had 
represented. With four mundane words, I was able to share in Aether's joy: 


The beach house had the same peeling wallpaper, creaky floorboards, 
and smell of cigar smoke I'd experienced a hundred times before; but, while I 

wasn't ready to call it beautiful, I didn't mind it so much. A monitor in Bill's 
kitchen-slash-office was tuned to a talk show on Zelka Six, showing graphics 
and photos of what was being recorded in history as The Christmas 

"Everything we know about the universe says this is impossible," a 
man's voice was saying. "Because of the expansion of the cosmos, we expect 
to see the light of stars shifted into the red side of the light spectrum; but 
we're seeing the light from this body is blue-shifted instead, to such a small 
degree it's hard to tell, but it's been measured and confirmed." 

"And you think that means it's artificial?" a woman's voice responded. 
"If this object is as far away as cosmologists think it is, how do we know the 
laws governing light and energy aren't radically different outside of our 
corner of the universe, or that some objects aren't moving in other directions? 
It could be orbiting — " 

"It has to be artificial," the man said on-camera, "or else everything we 
know about the universe has to be rewritten. We know the Celestials are 
advanced enough technologically to pull this off, else how could they have 
begun life on Earth? Clearly, they're trying to send us a message." 

"See, that's your problem," the woman said, "it's like everyone on 
Earth needs something to worship, so they feel special and important. Well, 
we're not special, we're just animals who evolved from primates over 
thousands of years. That s the message more people need to hear, and no real 
scientist would question — " 

I sent the off-command to his monitor; remembering what I saw on the 
beach, what a group of 'the destined' had done to Raskob 's sandcastle, all so 
they could worship a star. The whole world was dividing into groups, running 
to worship every created thing, abusing every beautiful gift, and denying the 
creator himself. 




The kid from Slammers had been right. I did see things that hurt, but, 
though I felt betrayed on the creator's behalf, I wasn't overcome by it. The 
question hadn't disappeared, but had been fulfilled, and I knew tomorrow 
could be better. That's what God put tomorrow there for. 

"Brandon." Bill jumped from his chair and plopped his copy of 
Destiny for a New You on the table. "I knew it... they're trying to 
communicate with us. Didn't you hear. . . the star is blue-shifted, so that means 
it's artificial. All we have to do is find out what they're trying to say and we'll 
learn all the secrets of the universe!" 

"You're worth more than this, Bill," I said, putting my finger on his 
book. "We all are." 

"Well," he said, trying to regain his mind, "then what're you doing 
here? Ajob, right? Well, forget it!" Cough. "I don't have anything!" Cough. 

"Actually, I just wanted to bring you a gift." I pulled the leather-bound 
book out and placed it on top of his. 

"Holy Bible," Bill read aloud. "Isn't that supposed to be ancient or 

"Yeah, I guess it is," I mused. "Older than the universe, in a way." 

"Well, thanks but I don't want an old book. Give me what's fresh and new." 

"What stays fresher than the truth, or newer than a faith with several 
billion people?" 

"Well," Bill said, "Destiny '11 have several billion people..." Cough. 
"It'll have everybody when the aliens show up and tell us why — " Cough. 
"Why we're here." 

"We can already find out why we're here," I said. "We can already 
have faith in something beyond our own imaginations." 

"Destiny ain't faith, it's science!" 

I shrugged my shoulders. Bill stared at the Bible for a moment. "Okay, 
I'll have a look." 

"Well, send me a din and let me know what you think. I'm still 
learning myself; but, aren't we all?" 

Bill smiled. "You on something, kid? Something's different about you 

I turned to leave. "Call it self-awareness." 

"Hey, wait-up." 

Bill met me in the entrance to the hallway. "Why'd you come to see a 
dead dog like me, huh? You're not here to pester me for a job?" 

"If you have one, I'd love to hear it," I replied. "But no, I just came to 
give you the gift." 

"Oh, well, ah. . . No one's given me a gift in a long time, I'll, ah. . . see 
what I can do about getting you some work... you know how it is right after 
New Year's." 

Vair stood out on the beach. She was looking up, her long hair flowing 
in the currents of the wind. 

"Who's that?" Bill asked, taking a step down the hall. 

"My fiancee. The second-best thing that ever happened to me." 

"Yeah? What was the first?" 

I smiled. "The realization of how much she meant to me." 

Bill let out a laugh. "You are on something. Whatever it is, I want it." 

I looked at him. "Whatever it is eased up your cough, Bill." 

He paused for a moment and cleared his throat. "Well, hopefully I 
won't need to get my lungs rebuilt again. The board's paperwork is a 

He patted me on the back and turned to the kitchen. 

I stepped off the deck onto the sand, reveling in the strong ocean- 
breeze. The Christmas Supernova remained the brightest point of light over 
the Pacific. 




"It's hard to believe, isn't it? That something so far away can outshine 
all the other stars?" 

"I never even thought to look at it." A tear streaked down her cheek. 
"Now it's like I can't look away." 

"You're not getting emotional on me, are you?" 

Vair realized she was crying and wiped the tear away. "No, of course 

"Oh, you're such a cyborg." 

"You're one to talk, Mister Malvirai." She tapped her finger on my 
forehead. "HNADC is modeled after the human brain, you know. How do we 
know she didn't just descend right into that skull of yours?" 

"Well, maybe that explains why I've been able to hack into your heart 
so well." 

"Through the double-firewall I have set up? Never." 

We kissed. It wasn't a kiss of imitation, or of ritual, but of every real 
thing a kiss should represent. 

"Happy New Year," Vair said, her brown eyes gazing calmly into my 

"Happy New Everything," I replied, brushing my hand through her jet- 
black hair, aware of how normal its indigo stripe had become for me, and glad 
knowing it was absent. 

Sometimes normal changes, I thought. Sometimes we find a better 

"Your book's gone," she said. The calmness leaving her roaming eyes. 

"Bill's the only one I know who reads print," I explained. "I can't get 
through ten words without going cross-eyed. Besides, I can download the 
Bible to my SNDL from, like, a trillion servers, and I can read it at a dozen 
times the speed." 

"You kids nowadays and your implants. . ." Bill stepped onto the beach. 
"It's about the quality of what you read, not the quantity." 

I sensed some anger rising in Vair, anger she'd conjured on my behalf, 
knowing the one who wasn't giving me work didn't deserve any gift. I put my 
hand on her shoulder and felt the anger come out of her. Vair looked at me. 
"You're really serious about this, aren't you?" 

In her eyes, I saw what lay beyond her walls, the root of so much 
potential. I saw the child within her, she who was blessed with curiosity. I saw 
I loved her as God loved her, and that, with God, through Christ, there really 
were no limits to what we could do. 

"So is the one who reached out to me." 





I could never go back. It was a painful transition for me, like 
before a butterfly spreads its wings: a human being breaking out of its 
programming. There was a meaning in my life, a reason for me to be 
here, and it wasn't a reason I could make up as I went along. I wasn't a 
God. God is God, and it was through him I found out who I really was. 

I asked for a blessing on the future of me and my wife. There 
was an opening in Vair's company and I received the permits to move 
to Connecticut. While packing I uncovered the February statement 
from my financial insurer, a testament to my imperfect housekeeping, 
and noticed everything had been payed off during January. Whoops. I 
had mixed feelings about reporting Aether's nine-figure deposit to the 
police, and I had to remind myself what the patrolman said: being free 
from the law in spirit still meant respecting it while on this Earth. . . or on 
Luna, or on Mars, or whatever corner of creation human innovation 
takes us. 

The Christmas Supernova remained in the sky until summer, 
and everyone jumped to market their own interpretation of it. I knew 
the truth was out there and imagined the day when we could travel 
such distances, wondering what its neighborhood looked like. I 
wondered what science will have revealed by then, and how much or 
how little its laws might resemble those of 2180. 

God bless the explorers, I thought. 

It was a long time before I set foot in an ascension booth again, 
and I all but stopped drinking Amber Plus, or any energy drink. I 
formed the irritating habit of asking why to myself, and do I need this? I 

would grant every amai I encountered the benefit of a doubt, even 
treating them kindly, knowing their software was designed to expect 
the reverse. 

The pain and emptiness of Aether's death returned from time to 
time, and I accepted it as something I deserved. I knew my creator 
loves to remove sin, and therefore my sin had lost its power over me. 
After all, I thought, if the blood of his son will cover a malvirai, maybe 
it's powerful enough to cover me, too. 

A cool autumn breeze blew through the chapel in New Haven on 
the day of our wedding. Vair was still young and fragile in her own faith, 
and agreed to the church setting more because it was so unusual than 
for any spiritual reason. At first, she entertained spirituality as a "What 
if?" and claimed we weren't living in science fiction, where such 
questions seemed to belong. I knew it as fact and, I also knew, with 
prayer, the connection within her would be made by another. I could 
only show her the door. She would have to walk through it by her own 

I saw the good I could do, and I saw the relationships in my life 
getting stronger. Richard, the brother I'd hated for so long, was my 
best man. Lisa, whose true nature was known only to me, my sister, 
and my bride, was the decorator, eager to participate in strange human 
customs, eager to prove herself to her mentor, Sallie, and hoping to 
encounter another malvirai like Aether one day, to be the conduit for its 
salvation. Vair's mother, who originally upheld her daughter could only 
marry a veetoo, had come to accept me, because her son Dean loved 
his sister and wanted to bring down the walls within his own family. The 
biggest surprise came when Vair's father arrived, sober. I knew my 




bride still felt betrayed by him, but I convinced her to give him another 
chance. I told her she didn't have to deal with anything alone anymore, 
that we always have help. 

I was so used to being broken in wallet and in spirit, but now I 
stood wealthy among men. Even when the tide of money would run 
low, I held something infinitely more important that could never be 
taken from me. 

So, what is the meaning of life? 

The question is as philosophical as they come, not one prized 
by those who find no hope in tomorrow, by those who believe they are 
an end unto themselves: their own god, or by those who treat the 
questions like cheap words and claim answers don't exist, who stall 
out and compromise before answers come together, who aren't able to 
discover the logical conclusion is reached where wisdom becomes 
nonsense, where the answer will not break under any future. 

To discover the logical conclusion of life is to die and be born 
again. The maze of one's own concept of good and evil cannot stand. 
To allow this maze to fall is to be humbled, and to be humbled is to be 
receptive. I find myself wondering if the answer I found was the same 
one Aether found, or the same one Vair would find in time. 

I saw we were all created differently, and that the diversity was 
beautiful. I realized diversity can help bring questions to their answers, 
and the truth will be that which stays the same from all angles. What 
if? I thought. 

What if an Al could become self-aware? 

What if God loved them, too, even calling those who destroyed? 

What if God could use them, too? 

I saw the creator could reach whomever he wanted, even 
sinners. I saw such grace made death itself illogical. 

I wondered if the truth then revealed could be called logical at 

The logical conclusion of life, is life. 

Chapter Seventeen: Daybreak 




About the Author 

Ryan Grabow graduated from Long Island University in 2004, with a 
Bachelor's Degree in Electronic Media, and currently directs for 
television newscasts in Fort Myers, Florida. Caffeine is his first novel, 
combining his Christian faith with observations on how 
communications technology has impacted the reality of our lives, and 
drawing from his experience as a webmaster, programmer, and spiritual 
geek as points of speculation. 

Ryan has a website at . 

Caffeine is now in print! 

tho real world 

varus hod like a nil rage 

a siran go; woman 

that question 

<L lhe son of a programmer.'' 

my l-r-l i I'., Hue 

whiii I didn't know I ncodod 

^ovol by 

• Splashdown Boohs 

splashdownbooks. com 

Thank you for your support of this work. 



Credits, Copyrights 

(and Bears... oh my!) 

Credit goes to the Holy Spirit (duh). Without Him blessing me with the 
idea for this story, you'd probably be reading about my TV Guide 

Thanks also to Ryanne Batey, Chris Ebert, and Mike Skold for their 
help proofreading the longest anything I've written to date. 

Oh yeah, and to my mom, too... on whose advice I changed "Ver" to 
"Vair," which actually sounds right when I read it. : ) 

Thanks also to Splashdown Books for those few last edits and for 
putting this book into print. May God bless them and their readers 

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL 
VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible 
Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. 

"EGrabow Media" is not a legal entity, but a brand the author applies to 
his work. 

This version was created in the United States of America by Ryan 
Grabow, and is electronically available worldwide at If you enjoyed this work, the author encourages 
you to share it with others. It is a free download, after all, which can 
legally be printed and copied under the terms of its license. 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- 
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To 
view a copy of this license, visit 

http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/ or send a letter to 
Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, 
California, 94105, USA.